If there's one area where Kentucky coach Joker Phillips knows his team must master during Thursday's season-opener against Western Kentucky, it's the rushing defense.
Last season, the Wildcats surrendered 184 yards on the ground and two touchdowns to Western Kentucky running back Bobby Rainey. Though Kentucky came away with a near 40-point win over the Hilltoppers, seeing Rainey run all over his defense is not something Phillips would like to see again.
"I'm not sure exactly what the team did. I mean, you cannot allow a team to rush for that many yards on you," Phillips said. "Rushing yards demoralize you. You've got to stop the run. When people are able to line up and run the ball on you, it's a slap in the face. Last year was a slap in the face the way they ran the ball on us."
On the season, Kentucky's rush defense didn't fair much better. The Wildcats ranked 11th in the SEC, giving up 177.1 yards per game and allowed a league-high 30 rushing touchdowns.
"We've got to stop the run," Phillips said. "To stop the run, sometimes you have to commit to getting enough people in the box to stopping the run, which sometimes hangs guys in the secondary out to dry. Those guys have got to compete like the dickens outside because we've got to try to commit extra people to the line of scrimmage."
Phillips is hoping the new defensive looks, brought in by new defensive coordinator Rick Minter, will help improve a struggling run defense. The multiple schemes and different blitzing packages have players pretty excited, and the hope is that this unit is more aggressive, especially up front.
What will also help is getting their big guys to be more consistent. There isn't a lot of experience on Kentucky's defensive line, but the coaches see potential. Two players who need to shed the underachiever label are interior linemen Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble.
Both were expected to be major contributors and both have yet to make their presences really known to opposing teams.
Phillips complimented Rumph's play in the last few days, and reiterated that in order for Kentucky to disrupt backfields, Rumph and Cobble, who combine to weigh almost 660 pounds, will need to make much bigger impacts up front.
"For us to stop the run, you have to have some big guys inside," he said. "These guys like to go to extra offensive linemen in their run game, extra tight ends. You'll see six offensive linemen, you'll see three tight ends at times. They want to run the ball. They do a really good job of it.
"We'll have some different packages. We'll try to match big versus big. Donte is a huge key to that. He and Mister Cobble are a big key to that."