By Guy Ramsey
Analyzing the greatest strengths of this Kentucky team in the preseason, the ability of a deep offensive line to control the line of scrimmage was high on the list. On the flipside, defensive line play had to be one of the biggest question mark.
Reviewing the tape of the Wildcats' season opening win at Southern Miss, strike that and reverse it. There was no bigger reason for UK's victory than its stout defensive front. "It takes team defense to stop the run, and it starts up front with being strong and being very sound in our technique," UK coach Mark Stoops (pictured) said on Monday, Sept. 4. "I was very pleased with the start of that. I felt like fundamentally that was the best we've played in some time." The numbers bore out that same truth. UK held Southern Miss – the same team that diced the Cats for 262 yards on the ground a year ago – to a mere 55 yards on 38 carries. That adds up to a grand total of 1.4 yards per carry, the fewest UK's allowed since 2012. "They understood how to play at our leverage points," Stoops said. "And again, going back off past failures is our point of attack — guys wanting to do too much, taking care of the primary and dipping their head and doing things. Just take care of your job, and trust that your teammate is doing his. That wasn't always the case, and so team defense is what it's all about."
Click here for Stoops' pre-game weekly conference Much like the offensive line did a year ago in paving the way for a record-setting ground attack, UK relied on depth and a solid rotation to get the job done along the defensive line. Stoops reported eight Cats spent time filling UK's three defensive-line spots and each of the eight produced. Adrian Middleton led the way with five tackles, while Matt Elam chipped in with four, including a tackle for loss. Calvin Taylor had four of his own, Quinton Bohanna, Kengera Daniel, Kordell Looney and T.J. Carter two each, and Naquez Pringle one. All totaled, the D-line had 22 tackles. That doesn't even account for the production of outside linebackers Denzil Ware, Josh Allen, Jordan Bonner and Josh Pascal, who often function as an extension of the line in pass-rush situations "I was very proud of the unit in that way," Stoops said. "I felt like they really were aggressive. I felt like guys were aggressive, I felt like our position on the football was very good for the most part. Guys played with a lot of passion, a lot of energy and some quickness." Shifting the attention to the offensive trenches, UK managed only 78 rushing yards in the victory. That's the fewest for the Cats since a 72-yard performance at Alabama last Oct. 1. In the eight games between, UK averaged 273.1 yards on the ground. Of course, the Cats are without departed senior Jon Toth, who locked down the center spot for the better part of four seasons, and the injured Cole Mosier. The players filing in behind them will have to improve, but Stoops also saw some more immediate fixes. "It's not natural to the naked eye just to look at it and see what's going on because you see some things disruptive on our offensive line," Stoops said. "But it could be as simple as a guy going the wrong way. It's pretty important for everyone to go the right way. OK, so when one person goes the wrong way it can make a play look very ugly, very quickly. That should be an easy fix." Similarly, Stoops will be looking for improved patience from UK's runners. Faltering in that area isn't ideal, but it is understandable after a nine-month layoff. "I tried to head that off all last week and for two weeks about being patient and doing your job and letting things come to us," Stoops said. "Some guys get so amped up they want to make things happen immediately and that's where the patience of the run game and the running backs will get better. And they've been so solid and they're very well coached. Guys are very amped up. That's why you see very strange things in game one and so, there were plays there." Also hurting UK was a short-term injury to Bunchy Stallings that left the Cats without the kind of depth they grew accustomed to a season ago. Fortunately, he's expected back when UK hosts Eastern Kentucky in its home opener on Saturday. "Some of that shuffling didn't help us in that game," Stoops said. "We have to learn to be able to do that because we have to be versatile. You don't know exactly what's going to happen. We always go in with the game plan and things happen. You have to be able to adapt. There's some things we will get cleaned up there. We weren't as clean as we have been. We'll get that straight and we'll get back to running the ball the way we need to." In spite of the way things started, Stoops sees no reason to believe the offensive line won't bounce back. If he's right, UK could have significant building blocks on both sides of the ball. "Our guys are very bright," Stoops said. "(Offensive line coach) John (Schlarman) does a very good job with those guys and they see things in the way they have to make some adjustments. I trust we'll get it worked out."
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