The defensive line is a group with a sense of urgency.
But you wouldn’t know it by listening to their coach during practice.
As players broke off into small groups during a Kentucky practice recently, it was hard to find new defensive line coach Derrick LeBlanc.
There was no screaming, no yelling, no barking of orders.
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“He doesn’t do a lot of that fussing and yelling on the field,” senior nose guard Naquez Pringle said. “He wants you to go through the progression, fight and work hard every play. But if there’s any mistake out there, he’ll coach you out there, but he doesn’t fuss much.”
LeBlanc, a former defensive line coach at North Texas, Southern Miss and Wyoming, is a big man with a hushed voice for the most part.
“LeBlanc is definitely not a yeller,” redshirt freshman Kordell Looney said during spring ball. “He’s not going to come when we’re in a play and he’s not going to come until after.”
The coaching comes in the meeting room afterward when LeBlanc can stop and start the tape, show problems with technique and decision making.
“My job is to get those guys prepared and once we get in the classroom or the meeting room, it is a classroom,” LeBlanc said. “We get to lay back a little bit, watch it, break it down and correct our fundamentals … with our unit.”
When he was working under Louisiana State’s Pete Jenkins — long considered among the nation’s top defensive line coaches — LeBlanc developed a sort of professorial style.
“I was always taught over the years that coaching is teaching and teaching is motivating kids to learn a skill,” he said. “I think the same thing you take in the classroom you apply to the football field.”
There have been plenty of lessons since he arrived this spring, replacing Jimmy Brumbaugh, who left to become the co-defensive coordinator at Maryland.
Some of those lessons have been off the field, where LeBlanc is a stickler for discipline. Pringle knew his new coach meant business when he quietly assigned a series of up-downs for a missed class.
“I don’t yell; I don’t do well with gray area,” LeBlanc said. “There’s right and wrong. Do something wrong? There’s consequences. … We just do physical punishment when they’re wrong and we hold them to a standard. I think these kids want to be disciplined.”
LeBlanc might be quiet, but he’s not easily pushed around.
“To be honest with you, he puts his foot up (their) rear when he needs it and as group,” defensive coordinator Matt House said. “I look for them to continue to improve throughout training camp and make leaps forward.”
Kentucky’s coaches are hoping LeBlanc will bring discipline and most of all consistency to an interior defensive line that has been up and down.
It’s no secret that the biggest push for the Kentucky defense this offseason is stopping the run. And it doesn’t take a football scientist to know that the defensive line is the first point of attack on that.
In Mark Stoops’ four seasons as UK head coach, the run defense has never been better than 12th in the Southeastern Conference.
Last season the Cats allowed opponents to rush for more than 200 yards a game for the first time since 2004 when UK went 2-9.
Of the tackles for loss and sacks, Kentucky’s defensive line was responsible for just 18 percent of the 69 tackles for loss and just two total sacks.
The numbers get more daunting when you look at the interior defensive linemen returning in those statistical categories. Only Pringle (2 tackles for loss, one sack) and Adrian Middleton (5.5 tackles for loss) contributed from that group.
Of his goals for the line this season, House said consistency in stopping the run and “first and foremost it’s to create negative yardage plays.”
After what he called a mostly ho-hum scrimmage this weekend, Stoops did seem more pleased with the defensive line overall.
“There was definitely some positives, some good things,” he said. “We were more stout up front than we’ve been. Better at run defense in general. (UK’s offense) did rip off a couple, but I think in general we more solid. Saw some more second and longs. That’s what we were looking for.”
Scouting the defensive line
The main man: Kentucky is going to need Adrian Middleton to continue to come along like he did last season when he started the final 12 games of the season at defensive tackle. The 6-foot-3, 275-pound junior from Bowling Green was fourth on the team last season in tackles for loss with 5.5 and coaches are hoping to see that number go up significantly. He’s been a solid, consistent player all camp.
The supporting cast: The Cats return some players with experience at the nose guard spot in Naquez Pringle, who started in five games last season and recorded a career-best six tackles in the bowl game, and in Matt Elam, who had four of his nine tackles last season in the first game. But after those guys, there is very little experience back for a group that has been singled out regularly as needing to improve. Coaches have seen flashes of consistent play from players like T.J. Carter (11 tackles last season), Calvin Taylor and Kordell Looney. True freshman Quinton Bohanna has been mentioned as someone who could contribute meaningfully this season, as has junior college transfer Phil Hoskins, but he’s still working his way back from offseason shoulder surgeries.
Outlook: There is proven talent and depth at nearly every position on the defense except the interior defensive line, and that is the group that must improve the most if UK wants to improve its run stopping ability. In all four seasons under Mark Stoops, the Cats have failed to finish better than 12th in the SEC in run defense, and last year they allowed more than 200 yards a game on the ground for the first time since 2004. To see those numbers improve, the defensive line must get significantly better. There are some solid starters in Pringle and Middleton, but the rest of the group is unproven and/or inconsistent.