UK Football

UK football notebook: Injury to Melvin Lewis means it's time for Matt Elam to step up on the defensive line

UK defensive tackle Melvin Lewis was helped off the field after breaking his leg against Auburn. The normal recovery time for a fractured fibula is six weeks, Coach Mark Stoops said.
UK defensive tackle Melvin Lewis was helped off the field after breaking his leg against Auburn. The normal recovery time for a fractured fibula is six weeks, Coach Mark Stoops said. Herald-Leader

It's still not clear how long Kentucky will be without its starting nose guard.

But losing Melvin Lewis, who fractured his fibula against Auburn, is about much more than losing 332 pounds to anchor the defensive line.

"It hits us. He's not only a great player but a tremendous leader," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said on Thursday night.

"And he's a guy that has overcome so much. ... We're going to miss him, like I said, not only as a player but as a person and as a leader."

A Kentucky team spokesman said on Friday that Lewis' status for the rest of the season hasn't been determined and that the staff was still evaluating treatment options and extent of the injury.

But until Lewis is able to return — if he's able to return — Kentucky will lean heavily on sophomore Matt Elam, who saw significantly more playing time than he was used to after Lewis exited the Auburn game in the second quarter.

Elam finished the game with a career-high tying six tackles against the Tigers and was in at some point on all but one series the rest of the game.

The message to Elam is simple, Eliot said: "He's gotta step up. That's a big job for us in the 3-4, with the nose guard. That guy is very valuable, holds down the middle and stops the run and pushes the pocket. So we gotta get him to step up."

When asked if the 6-foot-7, 360-pound sophomore was ready to be in such a prominent position, Eliot said: "He better be."

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Senior safety A.J. Stamps said there can't be a drop off at that position with Elam in there. And he'll have veteran guys on the line with him to help.

"He practices well," Stamps said of Elam, who has 14 tackles this season. "He's with us every day in practice. He practices well. We put pressure on him every day in practice and he exceeds the limits.

"He knows the play calling, he knows the plays and he knows what's expected of him. He's doing a good job."

After Lewis, who had 20 tackles including two for a loss this season, left the Auburn game, there were several variations along the UK defensive front, including Elam in with regular starters Farrington Huguenin and Regie Meant.

The Cats also got good push from a group that included Huguenin, C.J. Johnson and Adrian Middleton, who were mostly in on third downs, but also a couple of others. Courtney Miggins was effective on some plays as well.

Before the season started, Elam said that Lewis had become a big reason that he had improved during the offseason.

The senior nose guard challenged his understudy to do the extra work to become great. Their coaches saw it, too.

"Melvin has been a guy that has really tried to lead and help Matt in that area and give him that extra motivation and be the guy, and that's what it takes for all of our team," Coach Mark Stoops said.

Lewis, who was Elam's biggest cheerleader, now may have to lend even more support from the sideline.

"You can see that he wants it," Lewis said of Elam, who had 10 tackles and two pass breakups last year. "He has that hunger now. I really believe that he's going to make a lot of good plays this year."

Muschamp: 'I screwed up'

It's not often you hear a college coach mutter the words: "I screwed up; I'm a dumbass. You are a hell of a player," but it's what Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp told Kentucky wide receiver Garrett Johnson on the field after the game on Thursday night.

In the video captured by CN2, the former Florida head coach is seen telling Johnson, a Winter Garden, Fla., native, that the Gators whiffed by not offering him a scholarship.

Maybe that would've meant something a couple of years ago, but Johnson said he is happy where he landed.

"It's whatever," said Johnson, who has now amassed 15 catches for 314 yards and two touchdowns against Muschamp defenses in the past two seasons. "Now I'm here. I'm here. I'm trying to do something special here now. That was then. This is now. I'm ready to just do it."

Johnson said it's probably rare that a player gets open praise from an opposing coach.

"I guess I can kind of take that as a compliment," he said. "Like I said, I'm here now. I'm loving it. Like I said, we're still trying to change the game here."

Looking toward the future

A bye week, even a shortened bye week before a Thursday night game, offered Kentucky's coaches a chance to get a longer look at some of the younger and lesser-used players.

"We got some good work from those guys," Stoops said. "We did take some extra reps and push the younger guys and just get a look at them. It's always helpful."

Some names that came up during the course of the bye week included linebackers like Eli Brown, a true freshman from Bowling Green, and Courtney Love, a transfer from Nebraska.

"Those two guys stick out to me," Eliot said, noting that he'd been looking extensively at linebackers that day. "We have plenty of other players that I could name."

Two players that Stoops discussed later were true freshman wide receivers Tavin Richardson and Jabari Greenwood, who might have cracked the Cats' starting rotation a couple of years ago when Stoops and staff first arrived.

Both have been working with the scout team and the offense at times this season.

"If it'd been our first two years here, those guys would've played a bunch of snaps," Stoops said. "Just think we're deeper and developing guys and bringing them along at the correct pace, if you will, if we can. Across the board, we're more talented on the scout team for sure."

On those two players specifically, offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said he goes back and forth because he'd love to get them in games, but there's always the "but" with true freshmen.

"You don't want to do is play them a limited number of snaps through the season and lose a year," Dawson said. "We made decisions on those guys, and it's a tough decision to make at times because you look at them and you're like, 'dadgum.'"

But the coaches want to make sure they develop players for the future of the program, too.

"Typically, older guys just play better," Dawson said. "Tougher mentally, tougher physically. So that's where we want to go with the program, and obviously we're in a good place where we can redshirt guys and we can develop them. Developing is a key component."

Get in the rotation

As the season started going, offensive line coach John Schlarman said he felt good about going 10 players deep on the line without much drop off.

He wasn't kidding. The Cats even have used multiple players at multiple positions this season and have been able to get fresh legs into the game when needed.

In the second half against Auburn, UK subbed regularly at every position on the line except center Jon Toth. Injuries and illnesses have meant many different players getting experience, Dawson said.

"Coach Schlarman does a great job with those guys, and we're going to rotate those guys in as we see fit," the offensive coordinator said. "They'll play regardless if someone's injured or not, because we need fresh people in the game."

It makes for some interesting combinations and position switches for players like Cole Mosier, who filled in for Jordan Swindle at left tackle for two games when Swindle injured his groin.

Against Auburn, Mosier played right guard for much of the second half. It's become a running joke, Swindle said.

"He always jokes that coach never plays him in practice what he plays in the game, so that whole week (before Missouri) I think he was playing right guard and then all game he plays left tackle," the senior left tackle said.

Too close for comfort

In the days leading up to the Auburn game, Stoops made jokes about losing hair and having the remaining hairs on his head go silver from the Cats' close games this season.

The head coach's hairline and tint likely took another hit as Kentucky fell in yet another nail-biter, 30-27, against Auburn on Thursday night.

Kentucky's two losses this season have been by a combined eight points. All six of the Cats' games have been decided by eight points or fewer. The last time that happened was in 1975.

When Stoops was asked last week if the team could use a big, comfortable win sometime soon, he laughed.

"Sure, I'd love to have one. I'd love to have five or six," he laughed

But he also pointed out the great irony: "When we don't win any close ones, everybody's like, 'Oh, you need a close one to get over the hump?' Yeah. 'Do you need a blowout?' Yeah."

Ultimately what he's learned is "take 'em any way you can get them," Stoops said.

Quarterback Patrick Towles sighed when asked after the Auburn game if UK just expected to be in close ones since that was the norm in the first six. "From my heart, I hope not."