LEXINGTON, Ky. --- Big, strong, fast, mean.
In the past, it seemed like those terms were reserved exclusively for places like Knoxville and Starkville when it came to talking about defensive line play in the Southeastern Conference. But in 2001, you may just be able to add Lexington to the address book.
"Coming into camp, we really felt like the strength of our defense was going to be the front four," said new Kentucky defensive coordinator John Goodner. "And that's the way it's shaping up. We've got four guys --- and some others backing them up --- who are very good football players."
It's been at least a generation since that could be said at UK, and perhaps longer, if it's ever truly been accurate.
Why all the fuss?
The reason for the optimism centers around two primary figures: former Kentucky Mr. Football and national defensive player of the year Dennis Johnson, a junior defensive end, and sophomore defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson.
Johnson, who has yet to live up to the lofty expectations placed on him by various recruiting services and fans across the state, enters a season healthy for the first time in his career. The 6-foot-7, 270-pound Harrodsburg native received a medical redshirt last season after suffering a severe high ankle sprain in the season opener against Louisville.
His freshman and sophomore campaigns were slowed by a wrist injury suffered in high school which prevented him from weightlifting properly. Still, he managed to garner second-team All-SEC honors in 1999 after recording 39 tackles and a team-high five sacks.
"I wouldn't say my career has been a disappointment or anything," Johnson said. "I think I've done alright for someone who's only played two years. Last year, I didn't like having to sit out, but it turned out to be a blessing. I've got two years left, and I feel stronger than ever."
Johnson is also expected to benefit from the change of schemes. Under former defensive coordinator Mike Major's system, Johnson was asked to constantly make a deep, outside pass rush that often led to him being taken out of plays. This year, his duties have been more generalized.
"They told me the first day this spring, 'Just go to the ball,'" Johnson said. "'Get to the ball.' That's what coach Goodner is always preaching. With him, it's more like, 'Whip your opponent and get to the ball.'"
"Dennis has had a great camp," UK coach Guy Morriss said. "He's been everywhere on defense. It seems like every time I look up, he's in our backfield making a play."
A great deal of that playmaking ability can be attributed not only to Johnson's athleticism, but to the 6-3, 303-pound Robertson on the interior. A rare combination of speed (4.8) and power (470-pound bench), the Memphis native has wreaked havoc in UK's workouts to date.
"He's got to have a great year if we're going to be a good defensive football team," Goodner said of Robertson, who started all 11 games as a true freshman and finished with 40 tackles, three sacks and one interception. "From everything I've seen so far, he's going to have a great year."
Robertson is also benefitting from nearly 30 pounds he shed during offseason workouts. He's noticeably quicker this year, which could spell trouble for opposing offenses.
"He could be a great player, one of the best who's played here," Johnson said of his young teammate. "I think this could be a great defensive line all the way across. Not too many teams can put a D-line out there with guys like Jeremy Caudill, Dewayne Robertson, Chris Demaree, Otis Grigsby and Ellery Moore. That's a lot of great football players."
Indeed, UK's talent along the front line stretches beyond the marquee names of Johnson and Robertson.
Caudill, a 6-3, 298-pound former Parade High School All-American from Prestonsburg, Ky., is a near 500-pound bench presser with 4.7 speed. He played alongside Robertson as a true freshman, recording 20 tackles and two sacks.
The staff is hoping Caudill recovers from lower back pain which has plagued him in training camp.
Kentucky also features depth at defensive tackle with junior John Robinson (6-4, 286), senior Derrick Johnson (6-2, 305) and true freshman Ellery Moore (6-3, 280).
"Ellery's going to play for us," Goodner said. "He's one of those guys, when you sign a freshman class, that you have three or four guys who you know are going to play. As soon as he came in, we knew he was going to be a guy who could help. He's just so strong (435-pound bench press) and he's got tremendously quick feet (4.8 in the 50)."
Defensive tackles coach Tom Adams says he's got six players now who can bench more than 400 pounds at that position. In addition to Moore, he expects Johnson and Robinson to factor heavily into the rotation.
"You're going to see a lot of Derrick and John," Adams said. "John is like a rock of Gibralter in there for us. He's steady, and every time we put him in there, especially when it's a run situation, he's usually coming up off the bottom of the pile.
"Derrick is probably the most improved kid on the team. He's extremely coachable, he comes from a great football family, and he showed us a lot of dedication coming into this season. He weighed about 340 last year, but now he's down around 305, and it's paying off. He's always been pretty good against the run, but now he's showing us some pass rush, too."
Adams said the emergence of Moore, a former Ohio defensive player of the year who originally signed with Penn State before going to a prep school, has pushed the other players to new levels.
"They know I like ol' Ellery," he said. "And I told them they better not take a day off because he's hungry to play."
Complementing Dennis Johnson at the other starting end position is unheralded but highly productive senior Chris Demaree. The 6-4, 241-pound Louisville native had 27 tackles and a sack last year in limited playing time.
"He does get overshadowed," defensive ends coach Chris Lancaster said. "But he's one of the hardest working guys on the team, and he's always making a play. He's a kid that's really easy to coach."
The Cats also have solid depth at end with athletic fan favorite Otis Grigsby (6-4, 240, Jr.), impressive walk-on Mike Robinson (6-2, 238, Sr.) and redshirt freshman Daniel Burnett (6-5, 257). Grigsby has the most experience, a six-game starter from last season with 20 tackles and four sacks to his credit.
One of Adams' goals for the defensive line this season is to put more pressure on the quarterback. Last year, the Cats only got 14 sacks from their defensive line.
"It's a must area of improvement," Adams said. "There's no doubt in my mind we will be better. We've spent a lot more time working on it in practice I've had more time to work on that area with the guys individually."