HOOVER, Ala. — There was a time not so long ago that Donte Rumph couldn't even get into the University of Kentucky.
Now he's representing his school at the annual Southeastern Conference Media Days as a team leader.
Rumph, a two-year starter at defensive tackle, struggled with test scores and had to take the prep school route to get to UK, to whom he originally committed back in 2008.
That's why a shoulder injury that required off-season surgery terrified the 6-foot-3, 320-pounder.
"It was a hard time, a depressing time," he said on Wednesday of the shoulder injury that forced him to miss spring workouts.
"Uncle Rumph" as his teammates affectionately call him couldn't imagine missing his senior season at a place he had worked so hard to get to.
He couldn't imagine missing a chance to play for and learn from two coaches — head coach Mark Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot — known for bringing out the best in defensive linemen and sending them to the pros.
Getting back on the field by August "was a must."
"You know, time is not exactly on my side, it being my last year," he explained. "I'm just thankful that I have the opportunity to still play in my first game and recover and come back as quick as I did. So I'm just trying to stay humble."
Rumph leads a pack of seniors who want to find a way, any way to win this season at Kentucky despite a new coaching staff, depleted numbers and a killer schedule.
"We are too tired of losing," he said of the Cats' combined 13-24 record over the past three seasons. "We're working hard. We're putting in work this season. We expect to win big games and we expect to do big things this year."
As the team works through growing pains, much could fall on the big shoulders of UK's defensive line. It's a burden they're willing to take on the way they take on the nation's best offensive lines in the Southeastern Conference.
"Our motto is that we're the foundation of the defense," said Rumph, who had a career-high 36 tackles last season. "It all starts in the trenches, so we're working hard to live up to expectations."
Rumph said he's about 95 percent recovered from the torn labrum in his left shoulder, has been lifting weights (335 pounds most recently, he said) and feels good about the repairs.
The injury helped renew Rumph's focus and the adversity has made him a better leader, said Avery Williamson, a linebacker and fellow senior.
"He wants it bad; he wants it real bad," Williamson said. "I'm excited for him to come back and make a big impact. He's really put on some good weight and he's moving a whole lot better. I'm excited for him, to see what he's going to do this fall."
Rumph is excited to learn from Stoops and Eliot, who helped put together one of the nation's most dominant defensive lines at Florida State a season ago.
"It's an experience like no other," Rumph said. "It's an opportunity like no other. Coming from the great success they had at Florida State, we're just blessed to have the opportunity to be with them."
But he's learned the coaches have a high standard.
"It kind of puts a lot of pressure on you," he said. "You don't want to mess up. There's no room for error. You learn a lot and I'm trying to embrace it all."