KSR's preseason position previews series continues with John Schlarman's offensive line. Don't miss earlier previews of the Tight Ends, Special Teams, Offensive Line, Wide Receivers, Running Backs and Quarterbacks.
-- Matt Elam
will not start his senior season as Kentucky's starter at nose. The former five-star All-American played 80 snaps last year against Southern Miss, but was passed by JUCO transfer Naquez Pringle
after the bye week. The move worked well for the Cats; Elam accounted for just 9 tackles all season, while Pringle accumulated 39 tackles, 2 tackles for loss and a sack. Mr. "Pringle's ga-ga-GOT IT."
Elam and Pringle are not alone. The seniors have a ton of competition coming from true freshman Quinton Bohanna
. Described by the coaches as "twitchy," for his size (6'4" 320 lbs.) Bohanna moves extremely well. Stoops said he's forced the seniors to improve because, "You either can, or you won't." You'll see significant snaps from No. 95 this fall.
-- The player with the highest PFF grade in UK's bowl game was a surprising selection, true freshman defensive end T.J. Carter
. Carter played in 11 games as a true freshman but was used sparingly. He still knocked down a pass, got 11 tackles and a .5 TFL. The comparisons to Jeremy Jarmon never get old.
Behind Carter is Kengera Daniel
, a player with all of the tangibles to make an impact each Saturday, but to be blunt, he's one we're still waiting to see if he'll get his ish together. If he can solve his problems between the ears, he'll be a weapon in pass rush situations. If he doesn't, Carter better be in great shape.
-- This is the deepest and most consistent position on the defensive line. Led by South Warren product Adrian Middleton
, he was thrown into the fire in the 2016 preseason following Regie Meant's sudden departure. Middleton handled it like a champ. He was fourth on the team with 5.5 TFLs, had a career-high 6 tackles vs. Louisville and was named SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week after making an important stop behind the line of scrimmage on third down vs. Missouri.
There are two solid, albeit young tackles behind Middleton. Redshirt freshman Kordell Looney
learned a lot of football last season after playing for just two years in high school. Calvin Taylor Jr.
does not look like a football player. If the 6'9" sophomore does nothing at all, you can expect to see him bat down at least a handful of passes this season.
-- Just by examining the two-deep, experience doesn't appear to be a problem. Only two of the six positions are filled by underclassmen. Just because they've been in school awhile, doesn't mean they have a lot of in-game experience.
Middleton and Pringle will be reliable, but inevitable injuries and question marks elsewhere mean the young Cats must learn quickly. Following Alvonte Bell's offseason departure, Carter must master the defensive end position and consistently put pressure on the quarterback. Speaking of...
Pressure the QB
-- Kentucky's defensive linemen produced just two sacks in 2016
. That's crap. I don't care how good the edge rushers are (they are pretty damn good), you can't rush Denzil Ware and Josh Allen in every passing situation. Even if the defensive line doesn't take the quarterback to the ground, they gotta force him to throw under duress. I don't care how good the secondary is (they are pretty damn good), they can't pick off a perfect pass. The defensive line must do things to make the secondary's job easier.
Last year's deficiencies in the pass rush didn't hurt UK as bad as it should have. Quarterback play in the SEC was at an all-time low. That's not the case this year. Southern Miss has a pair of mobile guys, Nick Fitzgerald and Shea Patterson are light on their feet and Lamar Jackson is Lamar Jackson. Not only is the D-line charged to apply pressure, they must contain the QB in the pocket or they'll get burnt on big plays by running QBs.
Can Matt Elam Rise to the Occassion?
-- A storyline I'm tired of writing about, you know the drill. You heard Greg McElroy's comments. You heard the criticism from every UK fan. You probably asked if Elam has lost any weight. It's now or never, plain and simple. He'll either get with it or get lost
. I'd love to see it happen but will not be surprised if it doesn't. It comes down to what he's able to produce on the field each Saturday.
The greatest addition to the D-Line in the offseason was Derrick LeBlanc. The new position coach has a different philosophy and style.
Rather than simply clogging a gap, LeBlanc wants his players to command the gap by penetrating it. The more aggressive style
has been embraced, thanks to a more hands-on approach. With two graduate assistants helping, each position receives a significant amount of fundamental, one-on-one teaching during every practice. This attention to detail and aggressiveness will build confidence in a group that has not had much recent success.
Kentucky's run defense ranked 110th in the nation in 2016. Much of that blame rests on the shoulders of the D-line. LeBlanc's aggressive style should enable them to make more plays behind the line of scrimmage, but leaves them vulnerable for big plays. Conversely, that aggressive style should produce more tackles behind the line of scrimmage from Mr. Pringle, Middleton and Carter.
Will the defensive line still be the weakest link on the team? Maybe, but at least they will be playing aggressive. Feast or famine will define the unit that will make exponentially more plays in the backfield in 2017 than they did in 2016.