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Walk-on McDermott 'earned the right' to start by eating, lifting, productivity

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McDermott_Luke 10_11.jpgWith all that talk about Mark Crawford and the additions of Donte Rumph and LSU signee Elliott Porter, one can understand why the jaws of Big Blue fans around the Bluegrass dropped when they saw a walk-on's name listed atop the depth chart at one of the defensive tackle positions opposite Ricky Lumpkin.

Raving about Rumph in fall camp had become part of Joker Phillips' daily media interviews, and Porter was a highly touted late pickup that is thought to be a capable contributor sometime this season.

But there was Luke McDermott on Monday, listed above the ladder of scholarship players on the official depth chart. From virtual unknown to starter for one of the biggest games of the season, McDermott will start Saturday against archrival Louisville.

"He's a guy that always gives you 110 percent," head coach Joker Phillips said Monday at his weekly news conference. "The guy just continues to do everything he needs to do to get himself ready to play at this level. We've had some injuries. Luke has a lot of reps and he is taking advantage of them. (He is) just one of those guys that has a high motor, real aggressive, will never back down from anyone or anything. He's a big part of this defense."

Maybe bigger than anyone could have ever imagined or scripted.

McDermott, a junior walk-on from Louisville, has played in six career games for Kentucky with five total tackles, all of which came two years ago. As a two-year starter out of powerhouse Trinity High School, McDermott received zero scholarship offers and only a few opportunities at walking on.

So why, with tackles the likes of Rumph and Porter and veterans Crawford and Shane McCord, is McDermott surprisingly starting two years later? 

"The kid works hard, he's productive, he's there every day, he works at getting better, he comes out early, and he works on his technique and works on his craft. He's earned the right," defensive line coach David Turner said. "That's what I tell the guys. I don't care who it is, you earn the right to play. He's been one of the best ones, one of the most productive ones. He's earned the right to start."

McDermott earned it in the weight room and at the dinner table.

At approximately 230 pounds out of high school, McDermott was tremendously underweight for a collegiate defensive tackle. To get him up to par with tackles the size of which he would be competing with, the Kentucky coaching staff didn't have a miracle formula.

Simply, they told the guy ex-Cat Corey Peters inexplicably nicknamed "Freaky" to eat, eat and eat some more.

"He needed to get bigger and stronger," Phillips said. "We said, 'Go to the dining hall and eat. As soon as you get full, eat some more.' He's over at the dining hall for an hour and a half, two hours sometimes. We'll leave breakfast and go back at lunch and he's still there."

McDermott also put the work in, in the weight room, ballooning from 230 when he arrived on campus two years ago to approximately 280 in time for the Louisville game. Like the dining hall, Phillips said McDermott was often in the weight room for two and three hours, sometimes an hour after he was supposed to work out.

"Every day you have to work at it, eating and lifting," McDermott said. "It's not real hard at one point in time, but it's a long, long process."

A process that few ever conquer. As a walk-on, there is a natural but built-in hierarchy that a player must overcome. There's a reason why some players are awarded scholarships and why others are not. To make an impression and overcome that disadvantage means several factors have to work in a player's favor.

"I like coming out here and working every day," McDermott said. "I love football. I just did pretty much what I wanted to do. I'm trying to be a coach when I'm done playing, so I'm trying to get as much knowledge about the game as I can. It worked out because the more I know the better I become."

But did McDermott really think he could come in as a walk-on and play, especially during healthy times at Kentucky when depth is starting to expand and talent levels are starting to increase?

"I wouldn't have come here if I didn't think I could play," McDermott said. "I wouldn't go through all this work if I didn't think there was going to be something in it. But I am surprised."

Phillips said injuries were a factor in the decision. Rumph was out for a few days last week with a knee sprain and a couple of other players on the line have battled nagging injuries.

Turner said there was a pool of about three or four players they could have started at the tackle position opposite of Lumpkin and said several players will rotate in for McDermott. But the bottom line, Turner said, is McDermott has simply been the best man for the job.

"He's not the biggest guy, not the tallest guy, not the strongest guy but he makes plays," Turner said. "He's been there. We talk about on defense, especially defensive line, you have to be a productive player. It's not enough to just do your assignment."

A self-proclaimed Cardinals fan growing up that flirted with the possibility of walking on at Louisville when current UK coach Greg Nord was there, McDermott will make his first career start in his hometown with familiar faces abound.

"It's just like any other week," McDermott said. "I didn't just think about playing Louisville when I came here. I thought about playing against all the schools. It's just another game, but it is cool playing against Louisville."

As for the starting job the rest of the year, Turner said it isn't out of the realm of possibility to see McDermott starting at the end of the year, calling it his spot to lose.

"They put me in there (but) they'll take me out just as fast as they put me in (if I'm not getting the job done)," McDermott said. "As long as I stay focused on football I'll be fine."

It's worked so far.

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