To get a good picture – a real, real good one – of the Kentucky football Wildcats during their spring Blue-White game, get down to the middle of the field. Don’t sit up high in the press box (although the pre-game meal WAS pretty good this year), or on the 50 yard-line, with the eight or 10 thousand other fans who magically transformed into an announced figure of more than 24,000.
Don’t even stand next to me on the sideline with a microphone in your hand. Sure, you get to sidle up to Mark Stoops at the end of each period for a progress report. But there’s so much more to learn.
Get down in there, right over the football. That’s where Matt Elam lives. It is he who may hold the key to the upcoming Kentucky football season. Matt Elam might decide what you’re doing with your entertainment dollars during the last week of December.
The Kentucky nose guard is a human landslide, 6-foot-5, 360 pounds of muscle, bone and (ahem) other stuff that the coaches quite frankly wish he wasn’t carrying around. He’ll have a few months to get rid of as much of it as he can before the Wildcats begin summer workouts. They want a lighter, stronger Elam, one who can toss offensive linemen around as though they were rag dolls.
Elam is a nose tackle, strong and talented, the centerpiece in Kentucky’s base 3-4 defense. His job is to render life miserable for opposing offensive lines and make his linebacker buddies look like rock stars. And if he’s doing it right, you might hear his name on the public address system maybe four times a game. A great NT can dominate opposing Southeastern Conference centers to the point where they turn to their respective sidelines shouting, “HELP ME!”
If Elam is commanding respect, that means he’s attracting double teams, which open lanes for his pals behind him. They can rush in, harass quarterbacks and deliver a full-contact “hello” to running backs who think they’re about to turn up field.
If the UK defense can trundle off to the sideline after third down 25 percent of the time, as the top teams do, instead of 40 percent of the time, as it did last year, that will give new starting quarterback Drew Barker, his bevy of runners and his army of receivers more opportunities and better field position.
The Wildcats have four experienced rushers returning and virtually all of their pass-catchers, including tight end C.J. Conrad, who could be the next coming of Jacob Tamme. Their offensive line is still green in some spots, but anchored by perhaps the best center in the SEC, Jon Toth.
On the other side of the ball is a defensive backfield that may feature the most talented depth since the Fran Curci era. They’ll be playing behind linebackers who have virtually no game experience, but showed in the Spring Game that they’re ready to go.
So it all comes back to the middle of the defense, the one area which could anchor a team that finally breaks through to a bowl game. Or stays home for the holidays. Again.