Naquez Pringle had a lot of people in his ear telling him he was the man.
“I was the top player, everybody was like, ‘Pringle this. Pringle that,’” Kentucky’s junior defensive tackle recalled of his high school days. “I thought I didn’t have to do anything and I got the big head.”
The 6-foot-3, 320-pound player from Georgetown, S.C., had Division I offers from places like South Carolina and Clemson.
Strong with good footwork and the ability to get to opposing quarterbacks, Pringle had NFL visions.
Then he hit a roadblock bigger than any college center he might go up against this season.
Pringle didn’t qualify to go to college.
“I could’ve gone straight to Division I out of high school if I’d done what I had to do,” Pringle explained. Test scores and other academic shortcomings kept him from reaching his goals right away.
Instead he found himself at Itawamba Community College in Mississippi for two years.
The defensive lineman who had people in his ear telling him he was the man now gets in younger kids’ ears to tell them that being the man means taking care of your business.
“My goal is just to help student-athletes like myself do the things they should’ve done,” Pringle said. “I don’t want them to have to suffer like how I did. I messed myself up.
“I don’t want them to have to follow in my footsteps. I want them to be able to get the work. … When I go back home, I tell them, ‘Don’t do like me and wait till the last minute to get your work.’ I’m trying to help them now where I can be a leader and an example to them.”
He’s not just making those speeches at home in South Carolina now, either. Pringle found a way to spread that word in his new home in Kentucky.
This summer, Pringle joined with Gear Up (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) Kentucky to work with middle and high school students, reminding them to do all of the little things to get ready for college.
“I got one-on-one and personal with them,” Pringle said. “I told them, ‘You can strive for excellence, you just have to work.’ My goal of leading the community hasn’t stopped even though I’m not home. While I’m here, I’m still encouraging kids to do their best and focus on school and do the right things.”
It was in junior college, where Pringle combined for 40 tackles, three for a loss, an interception and a fumble recovery, that he said he learned that he has to work hard off the field, too.
“It helped me grow; JUCO makes a man out of you,” he said. “It teaches you about your life and what you’ve got to do and to take advantage of everything.”
He’s getting his second chance at Kentucky thanks to a long-term connection with defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh.
It hasn’t been a cakewalk since he arrived at UK in December. Pringle struggled early and went into fall camp fourth on the depth chart at nose tackle.
“He was like a fish out of water when he first got here,” Brumbaugh said of Pringle.
Added UK defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot: “He just didn’t have the techniques or assignments down.”
So the lineman leaned on some of the things he’d been preaching to the kids.
“Every day I come back after practice and get extra work and also go watch film,” he said last week. “If you’re not willing to put in overtime to get better at your own craft, then why do it? It helps me, helps the team.”
That extra work has meant a significant jump in playing time for Pringle, who has 12 tackles, including 1.5 for loss and a half-sack in three games so far.
“He’s already got that many tackles in a backup role and he hasn’t been here that long,” Brumbaugh said. “So the kid, he wants it and he works hard at it and he wants to be good. That’s what I love about him.”
After the second week of camp, Pringle’s coaches started to see a light come on for the player. His hard work was paying off.
“We’ve seen him become a technician. He’s a guy that now understands how to use his strength and be a good nose guard,” Eliot said.
After being singled out by his head coach for struggling, Pringle has been part of a surge for Kentucky’s interior defensive line, which will get its biggest challenge of the season at top-ranked Alabama with its powerful offense.
The Crimson Tide are No. 8 nationally and tops in the Southeastern Conference in scoring offense (46.5 points a game) and second in the league in rushing offense, amassing 246.4 yards a game.
For his part, Pringle said the more reps he gets the better he plays.
It’s all been an important learning experience, much like the last few years for the new UK defensive lineman.
“I’m really living my dream right now,” he said, even if it was a dream temporarily deferred.
Kentucky at No. 1 Alabama
7 p.m. (ESPN)