It's no coincidence that the nose guard is at the center of the defense.
Melvin Lewis was the center of the Kentucky defense both on and off the field.
So when news got around the UK sideline midway through the Auburn game last week that the senior leader had a broken leg and was out the rest of the season, it was crippling for a few minutes.
"I said, 'Hey guys, we've got to rally, we've got to go play ball and we can't worry about that, because we've got to go on,'" defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh said.
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It's football, and even when the center of your defense — both physically and emotionally — goes down, it's next man up.
That was the message from multiple Cats coaches and players this week as UK's defensive line reshuffles and reconfigures preparing for Mississippi State (5-2, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) on Saturday night.
"It's hard to replace Mel, but somebody's gotta step in and do it," senior middle linebacker Josh Forrest said. "They've been trying out a lot of different people and a lot of different packages trying to figure out what to do."
Coaches offered glimpses at the options Kentucky has moving forward. Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said that even though his defense is regularly changing from a 3-4 to a 4-3 among other alignments, there will not be an epic shift in what the Cats do.
"For us our scheme won't change much," Eliot said Wednesday. "I think that we're just going to fill the void with different players, but we won't change our scheme much. I think we'll just stay on track."
So when UK is in that 3-4 alignment, which it has been for much of the season, the spotlight squarely is pointed on Matt Elam.
The sophomore has been a solid backup for Lewis, but has been used sporadically behind a senior starter who had 20 tackles this season, including two for a loss and a sack.
In the second half filling in for Lewis against Auburn, Elam recorded six of his 14 tackles for the season playing in roughly 30 snaps versus the Tigers.
Coaches say that Elam, who declined to talk to media this week as he deals with the injury to his good friend and prepares for the game ahead, has been working hard.
"He's taken a very serious attitude, which is good," Eliot said. "He's come to work every day. He's paying attention and doing what we ask."
Losing Lewis has forced Elam to "grow up a little faster," his defensive line coach said.
"Sometimes when you have another person in front of you, you kind of coast a little bit, but now he's the man, so he has to perform because everyone's on his back," Brumbaugh said. "I tell him all the time, the nose guard spot on our football team — on any football team that's a 3-4 team — is the biggest key to a defensive front."
The more repetitions the 6-foot-7, 360-pound sophomore from Elizabethtown gets, the better he is going to be, his coaches and teammates said.
"This is the perfect time for him to step up," Forrest said of Elam. "Melvin will be gone next year and it will be Matt at that position. So this is good, good experience and reps for him."
All of the pressure doesn't fall on Elam alone, with coaches saying redshirt freshmen Adrian Middleton and Tymere Dubose are getting significantly more reps in practice as UK prepares for life without Lewis.
Middleton, 6-foot-3, 295-pounder, was in on several series in the second half against Auburn and recorded his first career tackle. In his senior season at South Warren, Middleton had 67 tackles, including an eye-popping 26 tackles for loss with nine quarterback sacks.
"He's really like my utility guy," Brumbaugh said of Middleton, who mostly saw action on third downs against the Tigers. "He's a guy I can move around; really he can play all the way across the front."
UK's game notes say that Dubose played in the opener, but the player from Youngstown, Ohio, has not yet recorded a stat this season. Brumbaugh said Dubose has the body for the job, but is "learning the game and it's going to take time."
Even with Lewis as its anchor, the Kentucky defense has struggled at times this season against the run, sitting at 10th in the league allowing 167.5 yards a game, but just 144.5 to SEC opponents.
The Cats (4-2, 2-2) aren't exactly hitting a power run team this week, which might help ease the transition. The Bulldogs are averaging just 30 carries a game and have run the ball only 209 times so far, both league lows.
Their leading rusher also is their star quarterback, Dak Prescott, who is averaging just 36.3 yards a game on the ground. But the 27-game starter is capable of much more, including rushing for more than 800 yards in each of the last two seasons.
Last season against Kentucky, Prescott ran for 88 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries.