A homecoming, and a chance to reflect how the line is ending.
With a football game thrown in.
Just business as usual for Donte Rumph.
“Basically, I was born with a football, coming up, going to high school football games, watching my uncle when he was at Carolina, watching my cousin at Clemson,” said Rumph, a 6-foot-3, 320-pound starting defensive tackle for Kentucky, which visits No. 13 South Carolina on Saturday. “It’s been a big influence, so it’s an influence for me to want to be like them.”
Rumph will be on the field at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday, wearing his usual No. 99 blue, white (and sometimes black) Wildcats jersey, trying to get past USC’s offensive linemen and record that elusive first sack of the season. With nine tackles (1.5 for loss) thus fa, Rumph said he knows he’s probably on pace to hit his usual totals (31 and 36 in the past two seasons) but wants to do more.
He’s a Rumph, used to success, used to being the big man, figuratively and literally.
“My goal is like everyone’s goal who plays football — to play in the NFL,” Rumph said at SEC Media Days. “I’m ready to have a great year and get there.”
At least on Saturday, he’ll have a small but vocal group cheering him on. From nearby St. Matthews, Rumph prepped at Calhoun County High, earning Class 2A All-State honors as a two-way lineman. Signed by Kentucky under then-coach Rich Brooks, he spent 2008 and 2009 at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy, preparing to get to the big-time.
Uncle Chris Rumph played at USC from 1991-94, coached at Clemson for five years and currently coaches the defensive line for top-ranked Alabama. Cousin Philip Merling played at Clemson from 2005-07 and logged parts of six NFL seasons with three teams before being released by Washington this week. Brother Tremaine Tyler played at USC from 2002-05.
There’s a lot to live up to. Rumph knows it from the occasional playful smack-talking he gets among the messages of support.
“It’s kind of hard to keep constant communication with them because our schedules are so hectic, and busy, but whenever we have free time to talk, or text or send a Facebook message, we do so,” he said. “I saw (Tyler) on the Fourth. Every time I see him, he says, ‘Boy, how big you gonna get?’ I say, ‘Boy, how small you gonna get?’ ”
Rumph is under his third coach at Kentucky, after signing (but never playing) under Brooks and then competing for three years under Joker Phillips. His senior year saw the arrival of Mark Stoops with his first head coaching job after years as a defensive coach or coordinator for Iowa, USF, Wyoming, Houston, Miami, Arizona and Florida State.
While Stoops has made waves at Kentucky with commitments from a star-studded recruiting class (currently seventh in the country by Rivals.com), it won’t arrive until next season. This year, Stoops is trying to battle through the mess of a 2-10 season from a year ago, when the Wildcats didn’t win a conference game.
Stoops expressed his frustration to his team and the media this week, claiming that the 21-point spread on the game wasn’t enough.
“Coach Stoops is strictly business,” Rumph said. “He’s also a fun coach, though. He’s all about his work, but he likes to kick back and have a laugh, too. First time I sat down with him, he said, ‘Oh, man, you’re a big-un’. I said, ‘Yeah, you’re kinda small.’ ”
The jokes aside, Stoops told Rumph to have the best year he could, so he could be remembered as one of the ones who helped start a football revival at UK.
“He helped us get past last year,” Rumph said. “We’re keeping focus on what’s here and now, what we can control now and in the future. The past is the past.”
Follow Cloninger on Twitter at @DCTheState