Kentucky Wildcats' reshuffled defensive line offers opportunity

The sudden departure of Regie Meant was a tough blow to the Kentucky Wildcats early in camp.

While losing their most experienced defensive lineman has shaken up the Cats, it may have also provided a greater opportunity for a handful of players seeking to make the first major impact of their UK careers.

"We've had a great off-season, and even though you feel bad that Regie isn't out here, there's a big chance for us to step up and show what we can do," said senior defensive tackle Courtney Miggins, who played a reserve role last season for UK after transferring from Pearl River Community College in Mississippi. "I feel like my game has boosted to another level."

Miggins, who was rated among the nation's top juco prospects before signing with Kentucky, certainly looks the part as camp begins. A year in the strength and conditioning program has made him both stronger and faster, the 6-foot-5, 285-pounder said. 

It's a similar refrain for Alvonte Bell, who signed with UK in 2013 only to re-emerge as a Wildcat after spending two years with Miggins at Pearl River. The junior defensive end redshirted in 2015 in order add weight and strength. Now at 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, the Florida native says he is ready to make his mark. 

"If I had worked out during the summer (of 2015), I would have come into camp more prepared, and I probably would have played last season," Bell said. ",,, I could say I'm stronger now -- physically, mentally more stable -- and more ready to learn things."

It was difficult for Bell to watch from the sidelines last year as UK struggled to get over the hump and finished just shy of a bowl game at 5-7.

Watching as the Cats struggled to get consistent pressure on the quarterback -- Bell's forte -- made it test his patience even more. Kentucky finished near the bottom of the SEC and NCAA rankings with only 17 sacks on the season.

"It was hard just watching everybody make plays, doing what they can to help win the game, and just thinking that I could be in that situation next year coming up," Bell said.

A third player looking to take advantage of the "next man up" scenario is sophomore Adrian Middleton, who signed with UK in 2014 out of Bowling Green's South Warren High School and, after redshirting his first year, played in four games last season as a back-up to tackles Cory Johnson and Melvin Lewis.

"I'm just more ready," Middleton said. "Last year, I didn't know what to expect. Now I know how to work and what to expect in the game. I've got a lot more experience in it, and I'm just ready to play."

The adjustment from high school star to "wait your turn" was a difficult experience for the 6-foot-3, 303-pound Middleton, who noted he was always one of the biggest players on every team for which he played. Upon arriving at UK, he was suddenly surrounded by players like 6-foot-7, 380-pound teammate Matt Elam.

And not only were his new teammates and opponents bigger, they were flying around faster than anything he had previously seen.

"The game speed," he said with a laugh. "When you actually get into a college game... people are flying around, running 4.4s, benching 360, 400 pounds, squatting out the world. You gotta get ready for the game because it's completely different."

Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said Wednesday that he's been "mixing and matching" along the front seven in order to get his inexperienced personnel as many reps as possible. In the morning practice session, Elam started with the first team at nose tackle with Miggins at end and Middleton at tackle. Sophomore Tymere Dubose has also been splitting some first-team reps at tackle. 

"I've also seen some good things from our freshmen defensive tackles," Eliot said. "T.J. Carter, Kordell Looney, Ja'Quize (Cross) -- they've done an excellent job. They have a bright future here."


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