Over the weekend Kentucky continued its run as Linebacker U this weekend when Avery Williamson got drafted by his home state Tennessee Titans in the 5th round. Unfortunately, it has been brought to my attention that he will not be allowed to commute from Nashville to Lexington on Saturdays to play for the Cats… dammit… So it looks as if Kentucky will have at least one enormous hole in their team this season at inside linebacker, but I figured now was as good a time as any to take a look at the rest of the team and see what we might be in for next season.
If I judge just from the Spring Game (I realize this is not the best place to judge what the team will look like, but its the only real info I’ve got), this is going to be a real old fashioned, throwback football team. We’re gonna win or lose in the trenches and in the running game. And honestly, while that sounds boring on the surface that is exactly the kind of football I like to watch. At its heart football is a game about physicality and power. Hell, when they first invented the forward pass people wanted it outlawed. Now I love precision passing and finesse offenses as much as the next guy, and we’ll have our fair share of that in Kentucky once our receivers and QBs get some more experience under their belts. For now though, we’re rebuilding this program the right way. We’re making sure our team can do all the dirty work before we throw on the bells and whistles.
Right now the strengths of this Kentucky team are the defensive line and the running backs. While we have a lot of talent and a lot of potential at a lot of positions, those are the only two areas that we can be sure are a strength until we see some of these other guys develop. On the D Line and in the running backs corps no development is needed.
Now, while the NFL has become a pass happy league, college football, and the SEC in particular haven’t thrown out the old fashioned grit and grind yet. LSU has, for pretty much their entire history been a team that plays physical defense and runs the ball down your thrown on offense, only passing for a few big plays down field once you finally decide you’re sick of getting mauled by their O-Line and Running Backs. Alabama is the same way, and those two teams are the class of the league. So while the NFL and even other college conferences such as the Big 12 hve fully embraced the new pass first variant of football, the SEC is a dinosaur which I for one appreciate (for the time being anyway).
However, to be a dinosaur in the modern world is pretty tough. I mean it worked out pretty well for those raptors in Jurassic Park I guess, but you don’t see many T-Rex’s in the United States do you? But anyway, Joker Phillips tried to build a team at Kentucky on this model of smashmouth football and it failed pretty miserably. Whereas a pass heavy spread offense can give a less talented team a comparative advantage over the powerhouses like Alabama, more often than not, trying to go toe to toe with them is a death knell.
In order to break through the silverback gorillas that Alabama and LSU call defensive linemen. You can play this old school style of football when you have the pick of the litter for college prospects. If you have the best talent in the country you don’t need gimmicks you just need to sit back and laugh as your team utterly emasculates your opponents. Tell’m Arnold…
However, when you’re an undermanned team like Kentucky that proposition becomes a lot harder. However, this year we’ve got something special. On the defensive line we have the type of top level talent that could start at Alabama (if not the depth they have at the position) and at running back we have the kind of talent, athleticism, physical power AND depth to go toe to toe (or honestly beat out) any other team in the SEC.
On the D line we have 2 of the best defensive ends in the conference in Professor Za’Darius Smith and Bud Dupree. Coach Stoops is a defensively minded coach, and specifically favors the D Line. He built the D Line that just carried Florida State to a national title and his first move at Kentucky was to bring in one of the best JUCO players in the country in Za’Darius.
Big Z is the face of this Kentucky rebuild, and his former Junior College coach (Coach Jim Brumbaugh) came in with Stoops as our new D Line coach to make sure we play the kind of Defense Stoops wants. I can’t sell Coach Brumbaugh to you enough. Yes Z is an astounding talent and gets credit for all the work he’s done making himself into the player he is today, but he was a basketball payer before Brumbaugh got ahold of him. Thats why Z had to go to Junior College in the first place before jumping up immediately to the SEC level. in just 2 years together Brumbaugh turned Z from a basketball player into defensive menace in just two years, so having him will help develop the younger talent on this team. In fact, he already helped develop Bud Dupree from linebacker to a 2nd team all SEC defensive end in just one season. Not even 1 calender year. The guy can coach.
There was fear that we would lose both these guys to the draft this year but we got them both back for their senior seasons, meaning they will anchor this SEC caliber defensive line for the entire year. Moreover, Stoops and company have done an amazing job restocking the cupboards on defense for when we lose these guys. When you talk about needed the best talent in the country to play this style of football it doesn’t get any sweeter than stealing a beast of a nose tackle like Matt Elam right out from under Nick Saban. He needs to lose some weight and work on his stamina, but after seeing what Brumbaugh did with Z and Bud I have complete faith in him. Line him up next to 6’4″ 300lbs red shirt freshman Regie Meant and we have a pretty intimidating front 4 for the 4-3 defense. Moreover, we have returning sophomore DE Jason Hatcher (whom Stoops stole from USC) continuing to develop and adding depth to the line. Bud and Z will help shepherd the talented (but young) linemen we have and all things considered we should finally be able to bang with the big boys in the trenches.
The fear is obviously that our secondary remains a major weakness and our Linebacking corps is taking a huge step back this year since the only truly outstanding player we had last year, Avery Williamson, just graduated, but the theory will be that if your D Line is beastly enough they’ll stuff any run before it even gets to the linebackers and create enough pass pressure that your Linebackers can drop back into coverage without needing to blitz. That way you can hope to win on sheer numbers against the pass. Its a risky strategy to be sure, but hey, it worked for Detroit in 2011 with Ndamukong Suh, Cliff Avril, Kyle Vanden Bosch, and Nick Fairley so it can work for us too.
On offense then we’re going old school too. This team has such insane depth at Running back that I’m worried some guys might end up transferring. I have no idea how we can get all these guys on the field and they all deserve to be starters. Moreover, we have such a colorful mix of abilities we can do pretty much anything you want running the ball. Josh Clemons is my favorite story of the bunch. I was shocked when we got him to commit in the first place 3 years ago. The man is an absolute giant with biceps bigger than my head. No really! Look at those things!
They look like they’re inflated water floaties or something. Absolutely absurd. However, the guy hasn’t played a season for us yet… He’s had back to back devastating injuries but looks to be back as close to 100% as possible. Moreover, of all the backs we have he’s the most multidimensional. The guy is enormous as stated so he can run between the tackles, but he also has the speed necessary to get around the edge on the outside and break off big gains. Moreover, he can be a QBs best friend with dump off and screen passes since he has such solid hands. The guy is the whole package.
However, he’s not the only back we’ve got. If you wanna talk about SEC power running we can throw Braylon Heard (Jr. Transfer out of Nebraska) or Mikel Horton (4 star recruit out of Ohio and the #12 RB in his class) at you. If you want speed and agility on the outside we’ve got the tiny but devastating JoJo Kemp or T.V. Williams. Hell, we could even bring Ryan Timmons into the backfield on end arounds. Long story short, anything a coach would possibly want to do with a running back, we can do it and we can do it really freaking well.
So obviously we’re not a complete team yet. The staff has proved that they can recruit the necessary talent to fill the many holes in this roster. Now its just a matter of developing them. All the eyes will be on the Patrick Towles vs. Drew Barker QB battle, and with Neil Brown’s Air Raid offense returning to the Bluegrass people will be expecting big plays from the bevy of 4 star receivers we’ve brought in. However, the real bread on butter of this team is gonna come from the trenches… whether that means breaking through them or making sure nobody else does.
We may not be great this year. We may be in for a lot of growing pains with so much youth in the secondary, linebacking corps, and all over the field on offense. But this year if we lose we’re definitely going down swinging and we’re definitely gonna hurt someone on our way out the door. No more rolling over and quitting. This team is here to play old school football and play it well no matter who they have to line up against.