Defensive line developing attitude in trenches
Coming off the field from the morning practice of Kentucky’s first two-a-day session of training camp on Wednesday, coach Mark Stoops was pleased but not satisfied with the first workout of the day.
“Got some good work in this morning,” Stoops detailed. “Sluggish offensively then they picked it up a little bit and finished with a pretty decent practice. So overall, inconsistent a little bit but did some good things on both sides. Got another practice this afternoon, so we're looking forward to that.”
On sixth day of training camp, the second in full pads, Kentucky has been featuring a continuing theme of improved depth in the third season of the Stoops era.
In the Southeastern Conference, depth is a key to sustaining success through an eight-game schedule. In the trenches of the defensive line, the Wildcats will need several veteran performers to step into roles vacated by former starters Bud Dupree, Mike Douglas and Za’Darius Smith.
Kentucky’s current depth chart features one returning starter on the defensive line, senior Melvin Lewis, a physical anchor in the middle.
“Melvin (Lewis) is playing some very good football,” Stoops said. “Melvin's doing some really good things, just like we would expect, like we talked about all summer with him.”
Lewis will work along with Cory “C.J.” Johnson and Regie Meant on the interior of the defensive line, with Meant entering his redshirt sophomore season and Johnson a senior after transferring from junior college.
A 6-foot-4, 302-pound product of Cape Coral, Fla., Meant had a splashing debut in his first collegiate game in 2014. In UK’s win over UT Martin, Meant totaled four tackles, two QB sacks and forced and recovered a fumble.
“(Meant) has a tough mentality about him,” Stoops said. “He's very passionate about what he does, and he likes to play physical. He's getting better. He's another guy that gets better and better with every rep. Things happen fast. The closer you get to the ball, things happen very quickly in there. He's getting better, but he loves to play with a very strong attitude. He's a tough guy.”
Stoops, defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot and defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh are seeking more players with the attitude and fierceness of Meant.
“There's more and more of those guys, and even young guys – you see them out there and you can tell they don't know what they're doing yet but they've got a lot of ability,” Stoops said.
After redshirting his freshman season in 2013, Meant broke onto the field with 18 tackles in 11 of UK’s 12 games last season.
“From the first year (Meant) was here to now, it is night and day different,” Brumbaugh said. “He understands how to do things. He takes it to heart, everything he does he is going to do full speed. That is just who he is. When he got here, he struggled with the transition and now I don’t worry about him at all. He does it. Every single day he does what he is supposed to do.”
Eliot has also pinpointed the development of Lewis and Meant as key ingredients to the potential success of the UK defense.
“Guys like Melvin Lewis have stepped up and become leaders,” Eliot said. “He played really well today. He is a load inside and he is athletic too. He plays with tenacity and technique. I’ve seen some good things from Regie Meant and Farrington (Huguenin). They are on edge and they are playing as good as they can every day. People are watching them. They are leading by example.”
Kentucky will see several other players compete for time in the defensive line, including sophomore Jacob Hyde, redshirt freshmen Adrian Middleton and Tymere Dubose and true freshman Kengera Daniel.
One of the most notable recruits in the Stoops era is defensive tackle Matt Elam – now a sophomore –
and a former five-star recruit that chose UK over Alabama and Notre Dame.
“He's doing better and better, and he'll be a significant contributor,” Stoops said about Elam. “It's just him learning how to play. Things happen quickly, and he's right over the center. He's good at that zero technique right over the center, but when you're in a shade alignment or a G, you know, things happen fast. The centers and guards are moving quick. He's got to continue to work on his foot quickness.
Elam without question possesses the physical traits at 6-foot-7, 360-pounds and combines his size with shocking athleticism for an interior lineman.
“He's a very athletic guy, as you've heard me talk about. He certainly can run for how big he is. It's just the quickness off the ball, and that comes from experience and reps. Melvin's a perfect example. You've heard me say it before, but he came in his first year and he was – he was bad. And he got a lot better that second year and he can be a dominant player this year.”