By LARRY VAUGHT
HOOVER, Ala. — He was not the biggest name — even though he might have been the biggest player — at Southeastern Conference Media Days here Wednesday. However, no one was happier or prouder to be there than Kentucky senior defensive tackle Donte Rumph.
“It has been a roller coaster just trying to get here. I was ineligible a second time and had to go back to prep school. Then I get here and got injured,” said Rumph. “It has taught me when things are going good not to relax and with adversity not to look down on things but try to see the good in things. It gave me a different perspective. It gave me an opportunity to lead in the classroom. Just from that aspect, it made me better.
“The journey has not been average. It has been a long road and I still have a long ways to go. I am excited about the opportunities I am getting and feel blessed to be in this situation and to be here for my first Media Day with coach (Mark) Stoops and my two brothers (running back Raymond Sanders and linebacker Avery Wiliamson) and be in the situation we are in to compete for a SEC championship. I am excited.”
Maybe excuse his exuberance over a SEC title, but appreciate his enthusiasm.
Rumph was a high school star in South Carolina and big-time recruit. However, not once, but twice his test scores were not high enough for him to gain admission to UK. Instead, he spent 2008 and 2009 at Fork Union Military Academy. He says he got so excited the day he got the call telling him he qualified for admission that he dropped his cell phone and broke it.
Once he got to UK in 2010, he played in 12 games and consistently got more playing time as the year progressed. He made seven starts in 2011 and had seven tackles against LSU. Last year he started 11 games and had 36 tackles and even was named SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week. However, he injured his labrum in the spring, needed surgery and is just now getting fully healthy again as preseason camp sets to open.
That led someone to joke Wednesday that he might be the poster boy for the renewed hope fans have for UK football this year.
“I wouldn’t say poster boy, but I am trying to encourage everybody to have faith,” Rumph said. “That is the biggest thing to have, especially dealing with adversity. In the SEC, there are always ups and down,s not just in football, but in life. We are learning about life and that makes us a better team as well as better men.
“These four years have just gone by. I remember my first interview, first time on campus and not knowing anybody. I remember calling my grandma and telling her I did not know anybody and she told me not to worry. It has flown by so fast and I am trying to embrace these few months. I am just blessed I got the opportunity to come here today.”
He thanked his teammates, coaches and UK staff for helping him through his surgery and rehab.
“We came up with a plan and I got surgery. I just had to stay up and focus on the grind and just rehab and get back,” Rumph said.
He expects to play against Western Kentucky Aug. 31 — he’s back bench pressing and lifted 335 pounds recently — and has even found a reason to be glad his injury happened when it did.
“Time is not exactly on my side with this being my last year. Getting back and getting back in the groove is a blessing from God,” Rumph said. “If it would have been any later, I probably would have missed my first game. I am just thankful to be ready for the first game and recover and come back as quick as I did. I am just trying to stay humble and get back out here.”
He didn’t even mind that coach Mark Stoops poked fun at him about his tie being too short and he joked with teammates constantly during their time with various SEC media members.
“The big guy is loving it all,” Williamson said. “He’s had an incredible story just to get here and we are all so proud of him. He’s become a terrific leader and really good player. He’s going to be a big part of our team this year not just because of the way he plays, but because of the leader he’s become.”