Kentucky has had a few dominant players on the defensive line in the past few seasons.
But dominant pieces don’t make a dominant group, especially in the Southeastern Conference.
This season feels different to Kentucky’s head coach, who not only sees dominant players in potential starting roles, but more dominant players pushing for those starting snaps.
As the Cats start camp this week, Mark Stoops is predicting good things for a group that hasn’t always been great during his time at Kentucky.
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“I’ve said it from day one, we’re building. We’re recruiting. We’re doing the best we can to play at the level that it takes in this league,” Stoops said of the defensive line.
“Great defenses in this league are dominated by defensive linemen. And we are getting much better. I feel much more solid.”
Kentucky returns starters from last season at every interior defensive line spot, including longtime starter Adrian Middleton, along with sophomore nose tackle Quinton Bohanna as well as T.J. Carter, who came on at the end of last season, charting three tackles for loss and three sacks in the final five games.
“You’re going to see a guy who’s really worked hard on his body this offseason,” defensive coordinator Matt House said last week of Carter, a 6-foot-4, 265-pound junior who had 18 tackles last season.
The catch is, Carter had to work hard on his body this offseason because he knows there are so many more players trying to take those snaps this season.
“The competition for playing spots is more intense this year,” said Middleton, a senior. “It’s way more intense.”
The teams that win in the SEC have great depth on the defensive line, the group’s position coach said this spring.
And Kentucky’s mission has been to develop some depth.
“We’ve finally got that now,” Derrick LeBlanc said. “So the guys are only getting better. The competition’s up and you’re only going to see a better defensive line this coming season.”
More depth means fresher players on every snap, something that started happening more last season than in years past.
“At that position, you always want to stay fresh,” House said. “Your face is in the fan everyday. We feel like we’ve developed that kind of depth where we can play seven, eight guys and not have a big drop-off.”
The goal is to go two deep at each position and then have another player who can rotate into most spots. UK feels like it has that and more going into 2018, which could lead to a much more well-rounded and aggressive defense than the Cats have shown in years past.
UK graduated three defensive linemen in Naquez Pringle, Matt Elam and Jacob Hyde, who combined for 24 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and one pass breakup last season.
They return six regular defensive linemen with 43 starts among them that helped hold six different opponents to less than 100 yards rushing last season, a first for a UK defense since 1949.
Then add in players like nose tackle Tymere Dubose (6-5, 315 pounds), who had some academic struggles in his early time at UK but has improved, and others like Calvin Taylor.
The 6-9, 300-pound junior had 22 tackles last season. Other returners pushing for playing time include Kordell Looney (10 tackles) and Phil Hoskins, who several coaches have discussed at length this preseason.
“Very big, very strong,” Stoops said of Hoskins, who needed a full season to bounce back from multiple shoulder surgeries. “I love the energy, the attitude. I love how tough he plays. He’s twitchy, and he has some size. “
Of the Cats’ 11 tackles for loss by defensive linemen last season, 9.5 of those are returning, as are all five of the sacks that group procured last year.
Look for those numbers to increase with fresher legs and stiffer competition.
“Across the board, I challenged all of them to play at a higher level and a much more consistent level, and I think we’re going to do that,” Stoops said in July.
One way he’s guaranteed that is by moving Josh Paschal from outside linebacker to the interior line. When the sophomore returns from a minor surgical procedure on his foot, he will be working to take a starting spot, coaches said.
“He’s a guy that is very sudden, strong,” Stoops said of Paschal, who had 17 tackles, including 4.5 for loss and 3.5 sacks as a true freshman. “The way he plays the game, and the passion for it, the desire to be great, it rubs off on a lot of people.”
And maybe there could be another true freshman like Paschal in the mix by the end of training camp.
Is this the best Stoops has felt about a defensive line going into a season?
“I think that’s fair to say,” he said. “We’ve had some really good players with some guys who did some really good things for us, but as far as overall depth, yes.
“I definitely think we’re going to improve on the defensive line.”
Important upcoming UK football dates
Thursday: Players report for camp
Friday: Media Day
Saturday: Fan Day
Sept. 1: Season opener at home vs. Central Michigan