Even before the season started, Jimmy Brumbaugh was lamenting the defensive line’s uphill climb.
“It’s been crazy,” Kentucky’s defensive line coach said on Media Day in early August. “It’s been the only place that I’ve been where each year I had three new starters.”
It only got crazier from there.
Just a few days into fall camp, the Cats’ only real veteran returning on the interior defensive line, Regie Meant, left the team.
Suddenly UK’s defensive front had fewer players and even more questions.
“It really is shocking, to be honest with you, when you lose your best defensive lineman at the beginning of the season,” Brumbaugh said recently.
“But you can’t sit around and feel bad for yourself. It was, ‘Get a guy out there and get him ready.’ That was my thought process. I mean, what can you do?”
The result wasn’t pretty at first for UK’s defense, which replaced most of the experience in its front seven. In the first three games, the Cats gave up 500 or more yards to each opponent.
“At one point against Alabama, I looked out there and nobody had started in a ball game and we’re playing the No. 1 team in the country,” Brumbaugh said of one of his many worrisome moments this season.
They haven’t been perfect, this new collection of starters and backups, but they’ve gotten better throughout the season, head coach Mark Stoops said.
“There was just a lot of things we needed to get better at, and they did,” he said, noting better technique and learning fundamentals. “I’m pleased with the way we progressed and we’ve still got a lot to improve on and we will.”
There wasn’t some light-bulb moment for the defensive line or a new transfer who magically appeared to fill the gaps. But eventually, each player found his niche and started doing his job.
It was all about technique and effort, UK’s defensive line coach said.
“It was whatever ability you have, we’re going to have you do that. You say, ‘I can do this. This is what I can do and I can do this to help my football team,’” Brumbaugh noted. “We didn’t have any exceptional guys but they got out there and they did their jobs.”
Going into the TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville on Saturday, Kentucky has found some reliable players on the defensive line in starters like Adrian Middleton, nose guard Naquez Pringle and defensive tackle Courtney Miggins, the only player returning with much experience at all.
Pringle and Middleton lead the defensive linemen with 33 tackles each this season, including 5.5 tackles for loss for Middleton, who has started 10 games. Miggins has managed 28 tackles, four for loss and five pass breakups, followed closely by Alvonte Bell’s 26 tackles and two pass breakups.
Each guy has found his role and is trying to contribute, Middleton said.
“At the beginning of the season, it was just a bunch of new players who had never played in a game together,” the former South Warren High School standout said.
“Everybody had to learn what to do and learn the game,” he said. “I feel like it just started to click with everybody, buying into what Coach Stoops was saying and believing in each other.”
Many of the defensive linemen were still figuring out the fundamentals early in the season, and it took getting some game experience for things to click, Pringle said Wednesday after the team’s bowl practice.
They also had to learn to play as a unit.
“We had to build our chemistry,” Pringle said. “That was the most important thing. … Chemistry is what makes the whole thing work. If you ain’t got chemistry on defense, everybody would be all over the place.”
There’s still plenty of learning and chemistry-building to do, but UK has a luxury it hasn’t had in the past of returning some key players on the line like Pringle, Bell, Middleton, T.J. Carter and Matt Elam next season.
“It’s very important,” Stoops said of building line continuity as UK has been able to do on offense.
“And we’ve got to continue to recruit guys and it’s not a good feeling being thin at any position, in particular the defensive line. That’s not a good place to be thin and/or inexperienced. So hopefully we’re going to continue to recruit really well, develop our guys and have some bodies to work with there.”
Kentucky vs. Georgia Tech
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.
Records: Kentucky 7-5, Georgia Tech 8-4