For Kentucky to become bowl eligible, or at least in the hunt for post-season play, chances are that their road will have to go through the visiting Louisville Cardinals. A new Commonwealth tradition is for the Governor’s Cup (UK vs. U of L) to be played on Thanksgiving weekend. I like turkey and stuffing. See where I’m going here? We can play the schedule game all day, but the same result will surface. IF Kentucky cannot stuff the run, 2015’s record will not trump last season’s result. Obviously more factors have to be considered, but if its run defense is suspect, opposing teams won’t exactly dread playing against the Wildcats. On a weekly basis UK will face quality RB’s. Starting with Louisiana Lafayette’s Elijah McGuire through Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd, an inadequate run defense will be exposed.
Stop the run. Simple sentence, difficult task. A full-time commitment to the 3-4 defense is a wise move. However, in order for that defense to succeed, a gap stuffing (NT) nose tackle has to occupy the middle of the line of scrimmage. Melvin Lewis and Matt Elam will amply fill that role. Potentially, Melvin Lewis’ upward trajectory will be similar to that of Corey Peters and Myron Pryor. At 6’3 340 plus, Lewis combines size, power, and quickness with a healthy dose of malice. Matt Elam will provide quality depth and perhaps live up to the hype that mesmerized the BBN during his recruitment. For Elam to become a consistent SEC defensive tackle, his conditioning must improve. Matt won’t be called upon to play 80 snaps a game. 20 is optimal. He also needs to trust his technique. One specific aspect is playing with a lower pad level. When the ball is snapped, an old lineman saying remains true to this day, “lowest man wins”. In the trenches, leverage is as important as girth. Coming out of the stance, a DT must stay low and shoot his hands through the offensive lineman. This creates movement, establishes control, and enforces gap integrity. I expect Elam to be vastly improved.
The Lawnmower, Jacob Hyde, and Javon Provitt are more options. Jacob will also be called upon to play situational fullback. Javon Provitt’s high school film showed the quickest burst off the line of scrimmage that I’ve seen in years. Not enrolling in June will limit his 2015 chances. Provitt is the future at this position.
Another projected starting defensive lineman is Cory Johnson. This is the position where I see the most pre-season camp intrigue. Last season, Johnson was the interior defensive line’s pass rush specialist. However, to become a three down player, Cory has to develop into a viable run defender. Slated to compete at the position are: Regie Meant, Adrian Middleton, and Tymere Dubose. Meant’s spring practice absence was unfortunate. With a strong camp, Regie could push to crack the starting line-up. Adrian Middleton will surprise. The often overlooked 2014 signee lacks experience but a high motor will help him to earn playing time. Tymere Dubose is the enigma. The Youngstown native’s high school film screamed of astonishing potential. His on and off the field maturity will define his role.
Farrington Hugenin is the third defensive line starter. I’ve not hidden my admiration for the hard working senior. At strong-side defensive end, he will be required to rush the passer and also influence the run. As a seasoned veteran, I expect him to be technically and schematically sound. JUCO players Courtney Miggins and Alvonte Bell will be called upon immediately contribute. But, at what position, DE or OLB? True freshman Kengera Daniel is another choice. Somehow recruiting gurus rated him a 3 star prospect. I strongly disagreed with their assessment. Daniel is potentially a special player. With a collection of new faces, DE is an unknown commodity. A factor that I haven’t mentioned is that Jimmy Brumbaugh will now be solely focused on coaching the defensive line. OLB responsibility is Andy Buh’s. Don’t underestimate the impact of this coaching move.
Inside linebackers, Josh Forrest and Ryan Flannigan, will need to emerge as the team’s leading tacklers. With NFL aspirations, Forrest’s only lacking skill set is line of scrimmage tackling. He seems to do fine down-field. However, he must increase the number of tackles made for negative or minimal yards gained. Ryan Flannigan is a mega-talented, versatile defender. Last season’s woes were a reflection of his late practice start and inexperience, not lack of ability. Tools and mentality are there. Ryan could potentially be one of the SEC’s most improved defenders. Flannigan and Forrest’s durability is essential. MLB depth is yet to surface.
Starters on the edge, Jason Hatcher and Denzel Ware, are both defensive ends turned outside linebackers. Just how efficiently they transition will be on display on September 5. Hatcher’s skill set has been primarily focused on sacking the quarterback. But, against the power running game, he was at times a liability. Starting with Tennessee-Martin, opposing offenses intentionally ran the football directly at the sophomore. This trend continued throughout the season. On sure run play situations, DJ Eliot eventually substituted for Hatcher with Jabari Johnson. A pleasant surprise, Johnson was the team’s 2014 most improved defensive player. For unit success, Hatcher’s run defense progress is imperative. Jason’s NFL chances are at OLB. With a ticking career clock, 2015 has to be Hatcher’s break-out year. Joining him at OLB is Denzel Ware. The talented redshirt freshman has earned praise from the defensive coaching staff. Denzel’s off-season weight and strength gains will facilitate his transition from DE to stand-up linebacker. Ware arrived to campus as a highly sought after recruit with offers from college football’s power players. Living up to that billing will not be easy. However, Denzel Ware is the real deal. OLB depth however is a legitimate worry.
For the Cats to become bowl eligible or in the hunt come Thanksgiving, run stuffing has to be the holiday meal’s main course.