Every year fall camp produces one impact player from off the radar. Unlike previous fall camps, this rising star’s performances in practice are being compared to a former National Defensive Player of the Year.
“T.J. Carter has worked himself into, it’s kind of like Josh Allen. I’m not going to say on that level, but he is playing like a grown man now,” said Vince Marrow.
“He is really getting after them tackles and guards. He’s a program guy that developed here and I think he’s one of the strongest guys on our team. I really like the way he’s playing right now. And he’s taken on a leadership role. You see the guy’s guns, and they’re huge. I really like the way his demeanor is right now and I think it’s flowing with the whole D-line.”
Any sort of comparison to Josh Allen is unfair. Carter does not deserve those overwhelming expectations, however, his growth in the summer of 2019 mirrors what coaches saw from Allen in 2018. The two share more than that in common.
1. Explosive Defensive Playmaker
When reporters ask coaches for specific standouts, Carter’s name is the always the first they share.
“He’s probably the most noticeable guy on defense right now,” said defensive line coach Derrick LeBlanc. “He’s consistently showing up. Run game wise, he’s being stout, tough. Pass rush wise, he’s showing up and getting to the quarterback for the most part, and his effort is unbelievable. He’s getting to the ball, running up and down the field, he’s got a lot of energy.”
It’s not just coaches. The guy who lines up against Carter everyday, and who faced Allen last year, can feel the difference in the trenches.
“He has really, really upped his game this year,” said offensive tackle Landon Young. “It’s not just getting in the weight room. He’s gotten tremendously stronger; you can see it in his body. But coming off the line he’s good with his hands, he’s really, really explosive, he’s quick for a big guy that’s around 290 or something like that. He’s a really quick, versatile player that’s stepped up his game.”
Fellow defensive lineman, Calvin Taylor Jr., can hardly contain his excitement.
— Nick Roush (@RoushKSR) August 15, 2019
2. From Quiet Kid to Leader
Josh Allen was a shy guy when he came to Kentucky. It took a concerted effort for him to leave his comfort zone and become a vocal leader. Of all the changes Carter made this offseason, LeBlanc hears the most obvious development on the field and in the meeting room.
“I think he’s always been that kid that stays in the back and doesn’t say much, but works. He always worked hard, didn’t say a whole lot,” LeBlanc said. “All of the extra stuff you do on your own is showing up for him in fall camp. Hopefully that carries on to game one and all through his senior season.”
3. A True Senior
Neither player had the luxury of a redshirt season. Allen played in every single game of his career. Carter has only missed two.
You first saw No. 90 making plays on the field as a true freshman in the TaxSlayer Bowl. According to Pro Football Focus, he was UK’s top-graded defensive performer after the true freshman made a pair of tackles and a crucial pass break-up on third down. Since his first bowl game, Carter has produced modest numbers, averaging 17 tackles, 3 for loss and 2 sacks over the last two seasons.
After watching Allen terrorize opponents all year, Carter kicked it into another gear.
“I saw all the guys getting drafted and stuff. I thought to myself, ‘Why can’t I do something like that?’ I saw the work the guys were putting in and I knew that’s what you gotta do to be a good player,” Carter said. “I’ve just been trying to work real hard this summer and in camp go hard every play.”
Mimicking Allen, Carter worked tirelessly to quicken his first step. To add more explosiveness to the equation, he also needed more muscle mass. LeBlanc was not surprised to find him in the weight room late at night over the summer. Muscle mass doesn’t generate exclusively in the weight room.
“I’ve gotta stay big,” Carter said. “I can’t be eating like a supermodel. I just try to run really hard and eat a lot.”
The most experienced player on Kentucky’s defense, defensive coordinator Brad White recalls Josh Allen’s offseason transformation ahead of his final season. Many have the opportunity. Few take advantage of it. Carter is seizing the moment.
“Last year 90 made a lot of plays. This year, it’s kind of a lot like Josh (Allen),” said White. “It’s funny how that works. Sometimes it happens between sophomore and junior year and then sometimes it takes till all the way from junior to senior year and there’s that light bulb, that urgency that people see that helps amp them up. He’s responded to that sense of urgency.
“Some guys, they let it go. That little spark, you either sense the spark and you respond to it, or there’s that little sense of urgency and it’s too hard. They wilt away. Just like Josh last year, he responded to that and said, ‘You know what, this is my chance and this is my last chance.’ He’s been really solid, he’s been really consistent and he needs to be a big performer for us this year.”