Ricky Lumpkin is on the spot in 2010. And he knows it.
Lumpkin showed promise as a redshirt freshman back in 2007, but then spent the next two seasons battling hip and ankle injuries.
He was finally able to stay healthy last fall and started every game. But his on-the-field impact was minimal. He had just 26 tackles with just 1.5 tackles for loss and no sacks. Lumpkin's tackles for loss and sacks were lower in 2009 than they were in both of his first two years despite playing double the snaps.
Lumpkin's classmate Corey Peters is now pushing for a starting spot with the Atlanta Falcons, while Lumpkin hears whispers about whether he can be an adequate centerpiece for a UK defensive line facing major questions.
"I've told Ricky on numerous occasions that he needs to step up and be a productive player," UK defensive line coach David Turner said. "We're counting on him up front to have a really good year. He's a guy that needs to go and go well for us to have a chance to have a good front."
Lumpkin said he's ready for the challenge, and he's hoping he's finally put the health issues to rest. He gained 30 pounds in the off-season and now weighs in at 303.
"I played at 270 last year," he said. "That hindered me."
Lumpkin doesn't want his UK legacy to be a player who didn't reach his potential.
"I honestly have a chip on my shoulder," Lumpkin said. "I really have something to prove. All my friends are in the NFL, Corey, Trevard (Lindley). It's time for me to step up. The coaches tell me I think too much. I've been playing football all my life. I've got to stop thinking so much and just go out there and do it."
Lumpkin is focusing on becoming more of a playmaker after his numbers slipped as a junior. He said he missed at least four potential sacks last fall.
"That kills me," Lumpkin said. "I think about that all the time, how many times I put my hands on the quarterback and couldn't finish, either because I second-guessed myself or just flat-out missed. It hurts because I know I'm better than that. Numbers aren't everything, but it's a pride thing. You want tackles for loss and sacks because it helps you feel good about yourself."
Not only does Lumpkin need to produce, he'll need to serve as a mentor for freshmen Donte Rumph and Brice Laughlin, who figure to be in the rotation.
"I know that not only do I need to produce, but I also have to help tutor the young guys," he said. "That's what guys like Corey, Myron Pryor and Jeremy Jarmon did for me. I'm ready. I guess it can be looked at as a lot of pressure, but I don't feel that way because I'm a senior now and I know this is my time to do what I need to do."
UK defensive coordinator Steve Brown said Lumpkin has to be careful not to put too much pressure on himself. While there are uncertainties at tackle, Brown expects to have a decent rotation at end with DeQuin Evans, Collins Ukwu and Taylor Wyndham.
"Ricky's got the ability," Brown said. "He can't try and do it all by himself, though. He'll have some help. Sometimes you can be so zoned in on trying to be the 'anchor' or the 'man' that it takes you out of your game. He needs to be aggressive but at the same time show some patience."
The Wildcats have had NFL Draft picks at tackle the past two seasons in Pryor (11 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks in 2008) and Peters (12 tackles for loss, four sacks, first-team All-SEC in 2009), and Lumpkin wants to follow in those lofty footsteps.
"If I can have seasons like those two guys, I'll be fine," Lumpkin said. "I want to do better than them, but if I can at least do as well as them then that's a successful season. Corey tore things up last year. Myron tore things up the year before. If I can have that type of year, nobody will be able to tell me nothing. I'll have my head held high. I'll feel like I've done my job."