KSR’s preseason position previews series continues with John Schlarman’s offensive line. Don’t miss earlier previews of the Defensive Line, Tight Ends, Special Teams, Offensive Line, Wide Receivers, Running Backs and Quarterbacks.
Mike — The defensive signal-caller is a team captain. Nebraska transfer Courtney Love entered his first season with high expectations. At the beginning they appeared to be too high, but Love consistently improved throughout the 2016 season to finish third on the team with 76 tackles. Everybody remembers the time Lamar fumbled, but people forget Courtney Love was the guy who recovered it.
Behind Love is former high school All-American and Paintsville’s Mr. Football, Kash Daniel. As a true freshman, Kash was money in special teams and used in a reserve role to replace Love. He finished his freshman year with 19 tackles.
Daniel is the No. 2, but Jamar “Boogie” Watson will split reps with Daniel in certain packages. A pass-rusher who was moved from the outside, they’ll use Boogie’s athleticism to blitz in unorthodox alignemnts.
Will — UK’s Will (weak, inside linebacker) is the SEC’s leading returning tackler. Jordan Jones burst onto the scene with 109 tackles. The best part of his game is his ability to make plays behind the line of scrimmage. He led the conference in tackles for loss with 15.5; four of those were QB sacks.
What makes Jones great is also his greatest weakness. The Youngstown-native plays with a few screws loose. His aggressiveness helps him make plays all over the field, but it can also get him out of position. This offseason the coaches have emphasized discipline in an attempt to harness that energy into efficient, mistake-free play.
True freshman Jamin Davis has the ability to be Jones’ backup, but Bowling Green’s Eli Brown has assured that will not be necessary. Brown added much needed weight in the offseason and has impressed the coaches throughout camp. He’s been used primarily in a reserve role, but this year is expected to receive significantly more snaps.
Some of Jones’ best work from 2016.
Jack — It’s arguably the most talented position on the depth chart with All-SEC pass rusher Denzil Ware and four-star true freshman Josh Paschal. In 2016 Ware was fourth on the team in tackles with 70. He created chaos behind the line of scrimmage with 12 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. An animated leader of the defense, Ware has the ideal protege with Paschal, an impact player that has forced the coaches to play him right away.
Sam — Josh Allen might be the best player in the SEC no one has heard of. A basketball player who entered the recruiting scene late as a two-star, he led the conference in forced fumbles last year with four. Allen’s other stats are not too shabby either: 62 tackles, 8.5 TFLs and 7 sacks. The 12.5 sacks between Allen and Ware were more combined than Za’Darius Smith and Bud Dupree’s senior year total, and they were just sophomores.
Behind Allen is junior college transfer Jordan Bonner. After overcoming off the field adversity, Bonner’s had an excellent offseason on the field. Ware was complimentary of Bonner’s progress. If he doesn’t take a ton of snaps from Allen, he’ll make a ton of tackles on special teams.
Hood and House — Kentucky’s new defensive coordinator is a refreshing change of pace in the locker room. Respected by the players, Matt House commands the attention of the defense. In charge of the inside linebackers, he has a former head coach teaching the outside linebackers. That level of experience is difficult to quantify, but will absolutely make a positive impact this fall.
Keep Your Cool — I alluded to it already once before, but it’s worth noting again: the best player on the defense has got to be able to keep his ish it together. On one occasion this spring he walked off the field frustrated, which is probably one reason why he didn’t play in the spring game. Kentucky needs that energy, but they can’t afford for that energy to lead to costly mistakes.
Stop the Run — The Cats’ greatest weakness a year ago, the linebackers are responsible for preventing big plays on the ground. After early mistakes, they improved dramatically. I expect them to continue taking steps forward this fall against the run.
How much will Paschal Play? — “Oh shit. He’s a freshman?” That was my reaction the first time I saw No. 4 suited up. You’ll probably share a similar reaction when you see him play for the first time. People who weigh 260 pounds aren’t supposed to be able to move like Pachal can. He’s an elite athlete you normally only see on opposing sidelines. The problem will be getting him off Kentucky’s sidelines. Figuring out how and when to let him give Ware a breather will be a fine balancing act for Matt House and Dean Hood.
Sacks on Sacks on Sacks — After watching those highlights, you can’t help but get excited about UK’s pass rushers, especially when you consider there are two others who are more experienced ahead of him. Last year the linebackers accounted for 19 of the team’s 21 sacks. It’s not all on Allen and Ware; the defensive line should contribute more and Jordan Jones is a pretty proficient pass rusher when he is sent on a blitz.
Last year Kentucky’s linebackers were the greatest unknown entering the season. This year they are the deepest and most talented position group on the field.
Where you’ll see the improvements most in the box score is in the sack category. With the help of the defensive line, they’ll increase from 21 to 30 or more in 2017. The greatest trick is figuring out who to blitz and who to drop back in pass coverage, a formula only House and Mark Stoops can accurately create.
The most important player in this deep position group is the least-heralded, Courtney Love. While the other three break records, Love is keeping the defense together as their vocal leader. More importantly, Love’s disciplined play enables others to play more aggressive. If they over-pursue, he’s at home, prepared to prevent the offense from busting a big play. His improvements throughout last season can not be overstated in their degree or importance.
Courtney Love will not be the player receiving postseason awards from the SEC, but how he leads and performs on the field will determine the success of UK’s defense.