After evaluating the offense, it’s now time to measure confidence in Kentucky’s defensive position groups going into spring practice. Remember, this post only addresses spring practice and does not factor incoming players that are scheduled to arrive in June. First, here’s a reminder of the grading criteria:
1: Most Confident
5: Least Confident
Edge (Outside and Jack Linebackers): 1
Kentucky returns both of its starting outside linebackers. Josh Allen finished 1st in the SEC with 4 forced fumbles, 11th in the conference with 7 QB sacks, 62 total tackles, 3 QB hurries, and 8.5 tackles for loss (TFL). Denzel Ware ranked 13th in the SEC with 12 TFL, 5.5 QB sacks, 5 QB hurries, and 70 total tackles. Both Ware and Allen are surfacing on 2019 NFL Draft projections and are expected to be disruptive forces for new defensive coordinator Matt House.
Depth at this position can vary depending upon positional assignment. For example, Kengera Daniel is listed as a DE but has played OLB. Jordan Bonner, Jaylin Bannerman, Kobie Walker, and De’Niro Laster (1 QB sack) all have at least one year in the program and should provide quality strength. If one wants to compare Kentucky’s talent before and after Mark Stoops; this position would prove to be an interesting case study especially if incoming freshmen are included.
All-Conference Safety Mike Edwards is the SEC’s 2nd leading, returning tackler after totaling 100 stops a year ago to go along with 3 interceptions, 5.5 tackles for loss, and 8 pass breakups. Safety talent is deep and capable but it did take an attrition hit with the departures of Marcus McWilson and Blake McClain. Darius West (if healthy), Tobias Gilliam, Marcus Walker, and possibly Lonnie Johnson will slug it out to join Edwards.
Starting cornerback Derrick Baity picked off 3 passes a year ago while breaking up 7 to go along with 42 tackles, 2 TFL, and 10 defended passes. The rising junior will be contending for all conference honors in 2017. Chris Westry returns as the Wilcat’s boundary corner. While not intercepting a high number of passes (1), Westry was consistent vs. the run as he registered 43 total tackles and 3 pass breakups. Both Baity and Westry will be true-juniors. Cornerback depth must be considered a team positive with Jordan Griffin, Kei Beckham, and Davante Robinson competing for playing time.
Nickel position will most likely be manned by Kendall Randolph. Several other options are listed above that could provide depth and situational pass coverage or rush.
Inside Linebacker: 2
Jordan Jones played at an extremely high level in 2016. The junior-to-be finished 3rd in the SEC with 109 total tackles, 6th in the league with 15 TFL, 9 QB hurries, 4 pass breakups, 1 forced fumble, and 4 QB sacks. Jones is the SEC’s top returning tackler. Fellow inside LB Courtney Love finished 16th in the conference and 3rd on the team with 76 total tackles, 1 QB sack, 1 TFL, 1 pass breakup, 2 QB hurries, and 1 forced fumble. Kash Daniel provided depth behind Love and should be ready to compete for a starting position.
Inside linebacker depth is not a major concern, but will draw the attention of coaches and fans alike during spring practice. Nico Firios, Eli Brown are veterans that will push for additional playing time along with redshirt freshmen Roland Walder and Jamar Watson.
Defensive Line: 4
From his January arrival to mid-2016 season, nose tackle Naquez Pringle was one of the most improved players that we’ve evaluated in quite some time. Pringle rolled up 39 total tackles, 2 TFL, and registered 1 QB sack last season. However, Matt Elam’s lack of playing time down the season’s stretch was puzzling and left an obvious hole in the Wildcat defensive front. That role was situationally filled by Jacob Hyde (The Lawnmower) as the pride of Clay County played as you’d expect; with maximum effort and heart. With the fresh memory of Georgia Tech’s B-Back rushing for 169-yards straight up the gut of the Wildcat defense in mind; nose tackle will be a highly scrutinized position in the offseason.
Much like Pringle, Adrian Middleton improved weekly and developed into a steady, SEC defensive tackle. Middleton finished 2016 with 35 total tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss. Tymere Dubose showed flashes of becoming a full-time starter as well. Redshirt freshmen Ja’Quize Cross and Kordell Looney will have an ample opportunity to impress and advance up the depth chart. Exactly which position both will play will be decided in spring practice.
Kentucky’s defensive line lost only one player, DE Courtney Miggins. Miggins provided consistency at the position and was often spelled by Alvonte Bell. Bell will miss spring workouts from injury. Rising sophomore TJ Carter was Jeremy Jarmon’s top dog from 2016’s National Signing Day festivities. Carter made the most of an opportunity in Jacksonville by grading higher than any UK defender in the Taxslayer Bowl. His ceiling is extremely high; he will be counted on to fight for the starting job along with Kengera Daniel and Calvin Taylor. DE is another position that will be under the microscope and must show progress.
What does all this mean?
With its top producers now juniors, youth can no longer be used as mitigating factor. Linebacker Jordan Jones and Safety Mike Edwards are elite. Edge pass rushers Josh Allen and Denzel Ware are close to joining Jones and Edwards in status and league recognition. Experience and talent are present at cornerback.
How Kentucky’s defensive line plays in 2017 will significantly influence its win/loss total. Could be as simple as that.