New Kentucky coach Mark Stoops understands that he and his staff have a lot to do in the development department.
“There's not one position on our field that we don't need to improve,” Stoops said earlier this week.
But one area of the Wildcats' team that he doesn't have to worry too much over is the defensive line. What was once a group of underachievers entered the spring as Kentucky's strength, with a hunk of experience returning.
The Wildcats will miss ends Collins Ukwu and Taylor Wyndham, but rising junior Alvin Dupree, who has really impressed Stoops and the staff so far, is working out at end more this spring, and junior college transfer Za'Darius Smith is expected to make an immediate impact at the other end spot.
Add that rising senior tackles Donte Rumph, Tristian Johnson and Mister Cobble are back, and the Wildcats will have a pretty talented defensive front to work with this fall. And in this league, you can never have too many bodies along that defensive line.
“You have to be good up front in this league, and I feel like we have a foundation there with those guys,” Stoops said.
It should be fun to watch Dupree adjust more to having his hand in the ground this fall. He played that hybrid linebacker/defensive end position in Rick Minter's defense last season and was one of the Wildcats' most active players. He was second on the team with 91 tackles and led Kentucky with 12.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.
Teams might not have time to double-team him with Smith potentially lining up on the other side. Keeping him in this class and having him enroll early were huge for this staff. Early reports out of Lexington were that he was tearing things up in the weight room before spring practice started.
Smith has good size at 6-foot-6, 257 pounds and was productive as a pass-rusher and a run stopper during his juco days. He registered 11 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks last year, and the thought is that one of those end spots is his to lose.
As for tackle, Stoops feels pretty confident about what he has there. It took a while for Rumph and Cobble to come around, but they made strides in 2012. Rumph, Johnson and Cobble combined for 11.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. For this defense to improve, those numbers have to increase in 2013, but if they continue to trend up, their play should take some pressure off of a younger linebacker corps.
It should also help the Cats be tougher against the run this fall. Kentucky surrendered 161.7 rushing yards per game last season and 4 yards per carry. Opponents also scored 25 rushing touchdowns against the Cats, which tied for second most in the SEC last year. Kentucky gave up 150-plus yards in 10 of 12 games last year.
With a more defensive-minded coach running things and more reps under these players' belts, the hope is that the Cats are tougher against the run. And they'll have to be because teams just don't survive in this league if they can't stop the ground game.