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When the UK football defense takes the field for the first time this fall, fans may need to keep a roster handy to keep track of the new names in the starting lineup.
While most of the UK defense looks to replace the six starters lost from the 2011 team, at least one unit can be counted on for plenty of experience: the defensive line.
“We have the most experience on the defense, so we just try to take it upon ourselves to be the best group at all times and to try to take on that leadership position,” said junior defensive tackle Donte Rumph. “We try to lead the team as well as the defense in the right (direction) so we can have a winning season.”
Rumph, who started seven games as a sophomore in 2011, is joined on the line by returning starters Mister Cobble and Collins Ukwu. A fourth player, senior defensive end Taylor Wyndham, will start once again when the Wildcats use four defensive linemen formations.
Cobble, a junior defensive tackle, started the final nine games of 2011, and Ukwu, a senior defensive end, started 24 games in the last three years. Wyndham has started 16 games in his career.
Rumph, who is listed at 315 pounds in the media guide, and Cobble, who is listed at 331 pounds, give UK a formidable interior line pair, who have the size to match up with other Southeastern Conference teams.
“We’ve got to play big and we’ve got to play physical,” said UK defensive line coach David Turner. “You’ve got big-bodied kids, but if you don’t play big and you don’t play physical, it doesn’t do a whole lot of good.”
Rumph and Cobble had been pointed to as hope for the UK defense for several seasons, but each player has dealt with off-the-field academic issues that have hindered progress on the field.
Rumph originally signed with UK in 2008 but spent two years working to qualify academically before making it to campus. Cobble missed all but UK’s bowl game in 2010 after being ruled academically ineligible for his redshirt freshman season.
Both players have finally put it together off the field, allowing them to lead on it, Phillips said.
“They don’t always grow up as fast as we want them to grow up,” he said. “Mister Cobble is in the same situation as his freshman year. He’s now one of the guys that we have deemed as one of the leaders of this football team.
“He’s one of the guys that we have deemed as being on of the leaders that does everything the right way. His GPA is now 2.6, after falling really far behind as a freshman. He’s becoming one of those guys that brings guys with him. That’s what we’re excited about.”
Phillips has seen a similar increase in maturity from Rumph.
“I know you didn’t think you’d ever hear that,” Phillips said of Rumph’s leadership. “He’s becoming one of those guys that understands how to do things right all the time.”
Rumph said he’s been motivated by serving as an example to younger players.
“I’m just trying to be the best player I can be,” he said. “Just trying to be a big brother to the younger guys, the freshmen. Just trying to get in shape, get the play book, make sure everybody is on the same page and make sure everybody is making good decisions. We need everybody in the locker room.”
The increase in maturity from Cobble and Rump is to be expected, Turner said.
“Both of them are juniors. Nothing is new to them,” he said. “It’s the second year in the defense. They understand that, and they’re a whole lot more comfortable there. They’ve been with me now for three seasons, so they’re used to me, they know how I’m going to coach them.
“Guys who are juniors should play better than guys who are freshmen. They understand that. The game is slowing down for them, and now they’re really trying to get better with just the little things: footwork, fundamentals, placement and all those things.”
In addition to the four returning starters, UK boasts two sophomores in reserve positions who saw extensive playing time on the line as freshmen. Christian Coleman totaled 21 tackles in 2011, and Mike Douglas totaled 16 tackles last season.
The Wildcats also welcome three freshmen — end Langston Newton and tackles Patrick Graffree and Thomas Chapman — to compete for spots in the rotation.
“All three of them are big, they’re athletic, they’re what we thought they were right now,” Turner said. “We had all them in camp. We knew what they could do. I’m big on that. I want to know what I’m getting in terms of ability, in terms of seeing guys.”
While UK’s depth on the line will undoubtedly be an asset in 2012, Rumph isn’t resting on the knowledge that he might be able to take a breather at points this season.
“Depth is very important, but it’s also important to hold your own,” he said. “The trenches are the foundation of the defense, so we’ve got to have a strong core. We’ll be alright. We have a good rotation. We have a great group of guys. We had a great spring and great summer. We’re rolling off the momentum from the win over Tennessee, so we’re just trying to start off the season right.”
During UK fall football camp, KyForward sports editor Jon Hale will be looking ahead to the 2012 season with a position-by-position preview. You might also be interested in reading a preview of the quarterback competition here.
You might also be interested in the feature “Wildcat freshman Langston Newton hopes to establish own legacy outside of brother.”