There was no denying the statistical anemia.
Kentucky’s ability to get to a passer or get to opponents behind the line of scrimmage was the worst in the Southeastern Conference and among the worst in the nation last season.
UK was last in the league in total sacks with just 17, with only nine total in league play. It was the Cats’ fewest number of sacks since 2009.
Their 53 tackles for loss last season was tied for the fewest in the league and was 122nd nationally out of 128 teams.
The numbers get grimmer for Kentucky when you consider that 60 percent of the Cats’ sacks graduated and 55 percent of their tackles for loss are gone, too.
Getting some players who could be more effective in pass rush was a high priority for UK during signing season. And while there are none proven in the SEC, Mark Stoops said on Wednesday he feels good about what the Cats have back.
“The guys we have in our program are starting to come along,” the head coach said. “We have to have a great offseason with them as well.”
As for the newcomers, Stoops pointed to players like linebackers Jaylin Bannerman, who “can rush the heck out of the passer,” Roland Walder, junior college player Jordan Bonner, and Jamar Watson, whom Stoops said people call “Boogie” because “he can go.
“He’s an electric outside backer,” the coach continued.
Inside, the Cats acquired defensive tackles like Kordell Looney and junior college player Naquez Pringle, who said recently that he feels like he can make a difference in that way.
“I bring a powerful pass rush,” the 6-foot-2, 330-pound player said. “Bull rush is my specialty, you know. I’m just trying to give a different look to my team and if I can help in any way, then I’ll do that.”
Defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh said that unlike when the Cats coaches arrived on campus and had just two pass rushers in Bud Dupree (a converted linebacker) and Za’Darius Smith, there are more options now.
I feel good as we move forward.
Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops
“We had two pass rushers, now we have seven or eight guys who can rush the passer,” Brumbaugh said. “Then you see Jordan Bonner and those guys coming in and you’ve got Denzil Ware and those guys.”
The key guy likely will be Jason Hatcher, who had suspension and injury issues holding him back much of last season. The soon-to-be senior had 3.5 of his 5.5 tackles for loss in the final three games of the season as well as a sack.
Stoops is expecting bigger things from the hybrid player — both on and off the field — in 2016.
“In particular since this last suspension as you move forward through this year, I saw some growth in him as a person and on the field,” Stoops said in December. “I would love to see him just have a big senior year on the field and off. He’s doing the right things and I expect him to stay that way.”
UK will have more depth at those outside linebacker positions than in previous years, which can only help those glaring statistical issues, Stoops said. He mentioned the addition of players like transfers Courtney Love and De’Niro Laster and the return of Kobie Walker (academics, injury).
“I feel good as we move forward,” he said. “I feel like we’re going to have a good group of defensive linemen as well.”
Brumbaugh finds reasons for optimism in the offseason work those players are putting in, even when they think the coaches might not be paying attention.
“I finally see what I had at LSU,” the defensive line coach said. “I finally see guys taking initiative to do things. I see the organization of them just going out and doing it themselves. … When they do that, it means they’ve gone to higher learning, and that’s what makes me excited.”
Umm, care to expound?
A couple of side comments during signing day festivities on Wednesday demanded follow-up questions, but perhaps those will have to wait for another day.
Stoops was asked about the highly publicized recruiting antics at places like Michigan and coach Jim Harbaugh’s sleepovers at recruits’ houses to maximize his allotted time with a family.
The head coach said that UK is not necessarily into all of the “shenanigans” that go on around the country, but added this fascinating caveat:
“I mean, you know, at some point we all do things maybe we’re not real proud of,” he said, perhaps blushing a bit. “I’m not going to tell you all the things we do. We do what we have to do a lot of times to land recruits. Sometimes you got to put your pride aside, you know what I mean. You have to do what you have to do.”
▪ Perhaps we will never get a straight answer on the next one. It came to light during the hiring of new UK wide receivers coach Lamar Thomas that he’d known offensive coordinator Eddie Gran since Gran was a graduate assistant at Miami, where Thomas was a star wide receiver.
Thomas’ connection with Stoops also is well documented.
“Lamar and I have known each other for some time, going back to my coaching days at Miami,” Stoops said. “He was just getting done playing in the league, if I’m not mistaken, at that time. He’d come back and be around Miami’s program.”
Then when Stoops was an assistant at Florida State, he spent more time with Thomas, who was a coach at Boynton Beach Community High School.
But Thomas’ ties with Cats recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow seemed a little more interesting. And definitely will mandate some follow-ups at a later date.
“Played him in the league when he played in there,” Marrow said of their time in the NFL.
Then Marrow smiled and added: “If I told you just where I knew him from and all that, I can’t tell you that.”
Learning on the go
Both of Kentucky’s incoming quarterbacks talked about a desire to get their hands on a playbook and work ahead, but it’s still a learning process for even some of the coaches.
February is the month that the coaches will be off the recruiting trail and start focusing on learning the new offense, said co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw, who brought the offense with him (and Gran) from Cincinnati.
For some, like offensive line coach John Schlarman and tight ends coach Marrow, it will be their third new offense in as many seasons.
We can keep it fairly consistent so these guys can learn it quickly.
Offensive line coach John Schlarman, on the new offense
“Once we get all on the same page, which will happen very fast, we’re going to start teaching the players,” Hinshaw said. “It’s going to happen the whole month of February, we’re going to be installing, and we’ll start spring ball the second week in March, and we’ll be rolling after that.”
Schlarman said there will always be a learning curve when taking on a new offense, but being able to use some familiar terms will help the offensive line pick things up faster.
“That’s really important for my position. Are there going to be some things that are a little bit different? Absolutely,” the coach said. “There were last year. We can keep it fairly consistent so these guys can learn it quickly.”
‘Get him a shot’
It’s a hard image to shake: Kentucky senior nose tackle Melvin Lewis being helped off the field during the Auburn game with a broken leg.
But his position coach said the senior is progressing nicely and still hopes he can live his NFL dream.
“He’s doing good,” Brumbaugh said of the player from Compton, Calif. “He’s back doing some drills. He’s not running full speed yet, but he’s back doing some drills. So hopefully in the next two months.”
Even if he doesn’t get an invitation to the NFL Combine that runs Feb. 23-29 in Indianapolis, Lewis is optimistic.
“He’s still positive,” Brumbaugh said. “Now all we’ve got to do is get him a shot. That’s it. That’s what we’re working on now.”
A fever for the flavor
With a last name like “Pringle,” it’s just too easy.
So when one Naquez Pringle’s coaches at Itawamba Community College (Miss.) started calling him “Tater Chip,” it stuck.
“Everybody find out what my nickname is and then they say, ‘Come here, Tater Chip. Tater Chip this and that,’” Pringle recounted to the media recently when the mid-year enrollees did interviews.
Seems risky to call a 330-pound defensive lineman a nickname he might not like, but Pringle said he has no issues with the moniker.
“I love potato chips,” he smiled.
But what kind? “I love Pringles. Got to.”
Is he more of a classic, BBQ or sour cream and onion guy?
Don’t make him choose. “I love them all.”