The previews roll on as we move from the defensive line to the second level after taking on the entire offense (offensive line, running back, wide receiver, quarterback). It’s a make or break year for the UK defensive front while the linebacker unit figures to be a team strength under second year defensive coordinator Matt House.
Through the last decade there have been plenty of linebackers that have played at a very high level for the blue and white. Wesley Woodyard has been in the NFL for a decade while Avery Williamson and Bud Dupree are both playing at a high level. Over the Mark Stoops tenure, this has been the position UK has developed the best. As the Cats enter 2018 there is plenty of talent rising through the ranks.
Josh Allen was perhaps the most popular name within NFL Draft Twitter, but the fact of the matter is that the Wyoming quarterback wasn’t even the best Josh Allen in college football. The linebacker from New Jersey was highly productive for the Wildcats as he posted 66 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 7 sacks, 3 pass breakups, and 2 forced fumbles. For his career, Allen has 20.5 tackles for loss, 14.5 sacks, 6 forced fumbles, and 4 pass breakups. He’s one of the best havoc creators in the SEC.
On the inside, the much maligned Jordan Jones is back for his senior year. As a junior he quickly went from fan favorite to the doghouse. After playing very little as a true freshman, Jones received second team All-SEC honors in 2016 as he recorded 109 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 4 pass breakups, and a forced fumble. Jones made plays from sideline to sideline and he was a huge weapon against the run as he had 11.5 non-sack tackles for loss.
Entering his junior season, expectations were sky high for the Youngstown native as he figured to be one of the best linebackers in the country. However, a shoulder injury suffered in game two reared its ugly head all season while he had some knucklehead moments during the opener and final game of the regular season. Jones spit at a fan in the win over Southern Miss and then was part of the brawl against Louisville.
All of these factors led to decreased production from UK’s most explosive defensive player as he finished the year with 64 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, and a forced fumble. After some called for his ejection from the team, Mark Stoops decided to stick by his fellow Cardinal Mooney alum. We’ll see if that will payoff this season. Jones is a highly disruptive linebacker who can be very productive when focused. UK needs him at his best in 2018.
Allen and Jones steal the headlines but there are plenty of other players UK will be counting on at linebacker this fall. In UK’s base scheme, four linebackers are used, providing an opportunity to use players with varied skill sets. Outside of the two studs, not much is known about the rest.
In the middle, Kash Daniel enters his junior season with the task of replacing Courtney Love at the Mike position. Daniel appears to be one of the leaders of the team, but we just haven’t seen much of him in game action. The Paintsville native has only logged 26 career tackles.
Jones is expected to line up next to Daniel, but last year showed us you need a quality backup at that spot. Surprisingly, Eli Brown left the program after recording 38 tackles in Jones’ place. UK will rely on a couple of freshmen at Will. Jamin Davis is a redshirt who enrolled early in 2017, where led the team in tackles in the Blue/White Game. DeAndre Square enrolled in the spring of 2018 and was impressive filling in for the injured Jones and Davis. They are in a battle with the highly-touted Chris Oats, a four-star recruit who picked UK over Ohio State.
Kentucky also suffered an unexpected loss at outside linebacker as Denzil Ware decided to take a grad transfer to Jacksonville State. To fill the void, the staff responded by moving Josh Allen to Ware’s Jack position, which is essentially a hybrid linebacker/defensive end. The move should give Allen more pass rush opportunities. At Sam, which is a more traditional, stand-up linebacker position that usually lines up over the tight end, UK will be turning to redshirt sophomore Boogie Watson. Watson showed playmaking ability last year as he recorded two sacks and a forced fumble in very limited playing time.
Watson played Will for only a week when Brown’s injury at South Carolina forced him into action on fourth and goal from the one. Boogie did not blink.
As far as reserves go, UK was able to redshirt blue-chip recruit Jordan Wright last year. The star high school basketball player has the size and athleticism to play either outside spot Sam or Jack. Alex King was another freshman that redshirted who can play any linebacker position. Kengera Daniel enters his senior year without a solid position, bouncing between defensive end and linebacker throughout his career. Expect UK to use him in obvious run situations.
There are plenty of bodies available but after Allen there is a lot to prove.
Josh Allen will become UK’s fourth linebacker drafted during the Mark Stoops era and Jordan Jones has a solid chance to be the fifth. Even with multiple assistant coaching changes, the staff has consistently been able to recruit and develop linebackers better than any other position.
Expectations are high for Allen as he’ll be moving closer to the line of scrimmage and will have the opportunity to make more havoc plays. Jordan Jones is a wild card while UK is really not sure what they have at the other spots. But recent history tells us this staff knows what they’re doing with linebackers and that should make fans feel comfortable.
Davis, Square and Oats have a ton of potential inside and should be huge factors on special teams. Kash Daniel was a top 350 recruit out of the Bluegrass State in the class of 2016 and he appears to have the leadership qualities needs from the quarterback of your defense. Daniel still has to prove it on the field and this year he’ll be backed up by one of Kentucky’s biggest recruiting wins of the Stoops era. Both Boogie Watson and Jordan Wright have a ton of potential as pass rushers.
There are some unknowns here but overall this group should be one of UK’s best. They have a first round pick who is 12 sacks shy of breaking the program’s career sack record. Jordan Jones can be a playmaking machine if he’s locked in and there is a ton of young talent in the fold. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see this group improve on its play from last season.