Doubts abound about the Kentucky defensive line this season with its mostly unproven starters and mostly untested depth.
But the junior college coach of at least two of those potential playmakers has no doubt about one thing: Both Alvonte Bell and Courtney Miggins are willing to work hard.
Travis Johnson witnessed it first hand as their assistant head coach and defensive line coach at Pearl River Community College.
“My first summer I wanted to see how far I could push these guys and who would quit on me first,” said Johnson, a former Florida State star.
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He had the players run 20 gassers a day and had them “push the sled until I got tired and I was just riding on it,” he said.
Miggins never got tired. He liked the challenge.
“I swear Miggins was like Secretariat. The harder I worked him, the stronger he got,” Johnson said. “It was crazy because I was like, ‘He’s got to stop at some point.’”
But Miggins didn’t stop and he worked his way from a player with one offer from Louisiana Lafayette out of high school in Lithonia, Ga., to a player who had his choice of Power 5 schools.
“To see him now, he could’ve played at any school in the country,” Johnson said. “When he got done at junior college, he could’ve went anywhere and I was excited for him.”
Ultimately, Miggins’ connection with Bell was how he ended up at Kentucky. Bell, the 6-foot-5, 260-pound defensive end from Miramar, Fla., originally had committed to the Cats before being forced to go the junior college path.
He wanted to bring Miggins along with him. Initially, it looked like the 6-foot-5, 285-pound defensive lineman was headed to Mississippi State. Without applying too much pressure, Bell urged his roommate to wait.
“I just told him to hold off before committing and he did, and we both ended up coming up here for our visit in January,” Bell said of his own work recruiting Miggins. “It was a good time when we came up here and I think he liked it. That kind of helped lead him to come.”
Johnson was happy to see Bell and Miggins land together. Having a friend to get through the rigors of fall camp or help when you’re down about having to sit out a season to get back in shape (as Bell had to do last year) is really beneficial, Johnson said.
The Pearl River roommates have remained roommates at UK.
“I laugh at them all the time and say, ‘It’s almost like you’re a married couple. Y’all are about to have your five-year anniversary in a minute,’” he joked.
Johnson is even more excited to see the type of difference makers they can become for Kentucky, which needs some of those especially after the unexpected departure of Regie Meant to open fall camp.
“Alvonte and Courtney could both play on Sundays,” said Johnson, a first-round NFL Draft pick in 2005 who played six seasons of Sundays with the Texans and Chargers.
He sees tons of upside in Bell, who arrived on UK’s campus last year in less than camp-ready shape because he devoted all of his time that summer to trying to get academically eligible.
“Alvonte is special,” Johnson said. “He’s a true knee bender. He’s long. He’s fast. Alvonte can be so much more. He could play outside linebacker. He can play defensive end on the next level. …
“His long arms, just the leverage that he plays with, the intensity that he plays with and when he’s in shape, he’s probably one of the best I’ve seen do it — and I’ve seen a lot of pros do it.”
Kentucky has been taking advantage of Bell’s versatility, moving him around quite a bit depending on the package and scheme. Coaches especially hope he can become a key weapon on third down.
He’s still a work in progress, though, and coaches are throwing a lot at him, Mark Stoops said.
“With what we’re doing and being as multiple as we are, putting it all together and being on point and being perfect in his assignments and technique every play is always going to be a challenge; and we’ve got to continue to push,” the head coach said. “But I like what he’s doing. He’s made a lot of strides.”
Bell said he’s enjoying the chance to play multiple positions and thinks all of it has helped him “become a better pass rusher because I’m working from both angles.”
While at Pearl River, Miggins was able to play every spot on the line. He’s got speed off the ball and plays with great hands, Johnson assessed of his former player.
Miggins moves well for his size, Stoops said, comparing him to C.J. Johnson who improved dramatically in his second season at UK.
“He’s big enough to defend the run and play inside but he’s also quick twitched so he’s a good pass rusher,” Stoops said of Miggins, who played in 11 games last season with 12 tackles, six of which came in the final two games of the season. “He’s a good slanter, he moves well for his size.”
Miggins’ strength is ultimately his strength.
“He plays very strong,” Johnson said. “That’s his biggest thing: He’s a strong player, but he works.”
So does Bell. And that’s why Johnson has no doubt they can turn into a tandem that will help Kentucky.
And they continue to help each other.
Bell said: “We both try to inspire each other and work on our craft so that way when we do play it shows what we’ve been doing during the offseason.”
Scouting the defensive line
The main man: Kentucky fans have been talking about Matt Elam and his weight and his stamina and his everything else since he was in high school. This is the season when the junior noseguard has a chance to show people how he earned his five-star ranking. At a much more mobile weight and with renewed focus, Elam seems to be doing everything coaches asked of him in the offseason. But will it be enough to anchor an unproven defensive front?
The supporting cast: Ask defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot about what he’s seen that is most encouraging on the defensive line and he points to defensive tackle Courtney Miggins. The junior college transfer backed up Farrington Huguenin last season, and Eliot has really seen Miggins’ play improve. “Courtney Miggins is the one that's playing really well and all the other ones need to get better.” Others include fellow junior college transfer Alvonte Bell. He will rotate between defensive tackle and end depending on down and scheme. Depth from there is a big question mark with coaches calling on players like junior college transfer Naquez Pringle and sophomores Adrian Middleton, Tymere Dubose and Kengera Daniel to improve. Also, don’t be surprised to see one of the true freshmen, like 6-foot-4, 275-pound T.J. Carter, get into the rotation in the first few games.
Outlook: Defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh is quick to point out that this is the third straight season that Kentucky is completely replacing and revamping its front line and that the development of some of the players last season will help this season. The Cats’ front three (or four in some cases) has to get much more push to help UK improve its pressure on quarterbacks. Kentucky was among the worst in the nation last season in sacks and tackles for loss. While not all of that falls on the guys up front, it certainly starts with them. It’s a group with a lot to prove this season.