In preparation for the 2014 NFL Draft, NFLDraftScout.com will profile the top draft-eligible prospects from FBS-level programs. This summer series will run until the start of the college football season.
Under head coach Joker Phillips, Kentucky climbed a rung or two on the SEC East ladder in 2010-11 but ultimately slid back to the floor last season, leading to a changing of the guard.
Former Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops was brought in to instill toughness into a program, that frankly, has been missing it in recent years. He inherits a roster that is weaker (at least on paper) than most other SEC teams but has size, experience and athleticism. Perhaps best of all for the defensive-minded Stoops, the Wildcats' strength lies with their front seven.
Given Stoops' success with the Seminoles, as well as in previous stops at Arizona and Miami, scouts can expect faster and more aggressive players out of Kentucky in coming years. This season, however, Kentucky does not appear to have a prospect of the same caliber as recent all-conference Wildcats Larry Warford and Randall Cobb.
NFL Draft picks the last five years: Nine
2013 NFL Draft picks: One - OG Larry Warford (Detroit Lions, third round)
Top Kentucky prospects for the 2014 NFL Draft
* Indicates underclassman
1. ILB Avery Williamson (6-1, 242, 4.84)
In an otherwise dreadful 2012 season for Kentucky, Williamson was one of the few reasons for optimism. Starting for the first time, Williamson finished second among all SEC defenders with 135 tackles (Tennessee's A.J. Johnson had 138) in 2012, 44 more stops than his nearest teammate. His impact was hardly felt just there, however, as Williamson recorded 4.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception in his breakout campaign.
Williamson's production is a testament to his instincts and fine form tackling. Unfortunately, it also is a reflection of the poor team defense played last year at Kentucky, as too many of Williamson's stops came yards downfield.
Williamson is an alert, active defender who locates the ball quickly. He slides past would-be blockers rather than taking them on forcefully when he can. He is not an overly physical defender who knocks ball-carriers to the ground but instead wraps his arms securely for the effective stop. Williamson is agile and quick and shows good awareness in coverage. He remains on the field, typically in coverage (rather than blitzing) on passing downs and can handle short and intermediate route duties. He does not, however, appear to have more than average straight-line speed for the position, which could pose problems playing middle linebacker as the Wildcats switch to a 4-3 scheme in 2013. Williamson should again rack up big tackle numbers "in the box" but must show better speed to the flanks if his stock is to rise significantly.
While not the high-end NFL prospect that former teammates Larry Warford (guard) and Randall Cobb (wide receiver) were for Kentucky, Williamson is a prospect to keep an eye on. He is a leader on and off the field and the type of player Kentucky can build around. NFL teams will appreciate his maturity and intelligence, as well.
2. DE Alvin Dupree (6-3, 254, 4.79)*
Under Stoops, Florida State boasted three all-conference caliber defensive ends in 2012 in ACC Defensive Player of the Year Bjoern Werner (Indianapolis Colts' first round pick), San Francisco 49ers' second round Tank Carradine and Washington Redskins' fifth rounder Brandon Jenkins. While each possessed his own strengths and weaknesses, of course, they averaged 6-3, 264 pounds and offered aquick burst off the snap, lateral agility in space and pursued the ball with passion.
Because Dupree possesses these same traits, the former linebacker could be among the Wildcats best positioned to benefit from Stoops' hiring.
Dupree spent his first season in Lexington on the defensive line, recording 21 tackles on the season, including 14 in three starts to finish the year. He was moved to rush linebacker in the Wildcats' 3-4 scheme in 2012 and responded with a breakout campaign, ranking second to Williamson in tackles (91) and leading the club in tackles for loss (12.5) and sacks (6.5).
Dupree has the frame to get bigger and certainly will need to do so if he is going to play defensive end in the NFL. Of the former Seminoles, he is most built like Jenkins (6-3, 251), who's production in this highly aggressive 4-3 scheme helped the Redskins' rookie finish third in the country with 13.5 sacks in 2010. Dupree is not as explosive off the snap as Jenkins but is quick and accelerates well. He is physical at the point of attack and quick enough to set the edge but is over-powered when blockers get into his chest.
3. DT Donte Rumph (6-3, 320, 5.08)
A big-bodied defensive tackle with two years of starting experience, Rumph could prove the foundation of Kentucky's defensive line in 2013. Rumph (pronounced "Rump") offers plenty of precisely that, serving as an effective run-stuffing presence due to his size and strength. He emerged as a full-time starter in 2012 with improving conditioning, recording career-highs in tackles (36), tackles for loss (six) and sacks (four).
Rumph's weight was distributed better in 2012 and it showed in his ability to move laterally. He can surprise opponents with his quickness and has an effective over-arm swim move to slip into the backfield. It will be interesting to see what his conditioning is like in 2013 as he missed most of the spring after sustaining an injury to his shoulder which required surgery. He's practiced since and is expected to be ready for Kentucky's opener August 31 vs. former Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino and Western Kentucky.
Rumph initially signed with Kentucky in 2008 but academic struggles sent him to Fork Union Military Academy for two years. As such, at 24 years-old, he'd be entering the NFL as an older prospect than most.
Other Kentucky prospects worth watching:
DE Za'Darius Smith (6-5, 257, 4.82)*
Listed by some recruiting services as the top JUCO defensive end this year, Smith is expected to be the centerpiece of Kentucky's refurbished defensive line. A well-built athlete who performed well in the Wildcats' spring game (six tackles, including one for loss), Smith was named a Second Team All-American by the National Junior College Athletic Association at East Mississippi Community College with 47 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. Smith has been plagued recently by an ankle injury but also is expected back in time for the opener.
RB Raymond Sanders III (5-07, 199, 4.62)
Despite playing in 11 games (and starting just three times), Sanders led the Wildcats with 669 rushing yards (5.4 yards per carry average) and five touchdowns. He's also an experienced receiver (18 catches for 111 yards in 2012) and returner (kicks and punts). Quicker than fast, Sanders' appeal to scouts will be in his versatility as a potential change of pace back.
NG Mister Cobble (6-0, 336, 5.28)
At first glance, the name and build might be enough to spark interest from scouts, if for no other reason than simple curiosity. A closer look, however, shows that Cobble offers quick feet for a man of his build and can handle tough duties inside because of his strength and leverage. Cobble has started 13 of the past 22 games for Kentucky but was limited last season due to illness. He recorded 58 tackles, including six for loss and three sacks during this time.