On Tuesday Coach Mark Stoops opened practice up to the media. The collection of hacks gathered mostly around the quarterbacks and receivers. I went Rogue, I lone wolfed over by the defensive line and linebackers. Listening to and observing coaches following practice provides a limited view into personnel strengths and weaknesses. Today, I saw for myself. Here are some of my notes:
–Regie Meant is the most improved defensive player. Mark Stoops and DJ Eliot have described him as violent in movement. I concur. His leap is attributed to additional strength as well as improved technique with his initial punch out of his stance and lateral movement.
–Josh Forrest is the irreplaceable player. With linebackers dropping like flies, one that has to maintain health and durability is Josh Forrest. He’s now tackling more uphill, or closer to the line of scrimmage. That was my only concern about Forrest going into 2015. As the clear cut leader of the line-backing corps, Forrest acts as a coach on the field by instructing younger players between series or snaps. Speaking of younger players, there are a bunch of them.
-Back-up linebackers included three true and one redshirt freshman. On the inside, Eli Brown and Nico Firios occupied the spots behind Forrest and Khalid Henderson. Outside backers were Kengera Daniel and Josh Allen. Brown is thin, but if attrition continues, he may be called upon play this fall. A redshirt would be optimal. Same with Josh Allen. At 6’5 210, he would be more impactful at 230 plus. But he and Kengera Daniel are both going to be top-level SEC edge players for years to come.
–Chris Westry is special and legitimately running with the first team. And, rightfully so. At 6’4 I was initially worried about his ability to bend at the line of scrimmage to discourage receiver’s routes. He had no issues today. On the other side, Cody Quinn is still holding on to his starting position but I don’t think that will last. Cornerback was a position of worry. However, after today, I’ve upgraded my worry to concern. That is a positive. Derrick Baity is another true freshman in the mix.
-UK will play a lot of Nickel. Blake McClain and Kendall Randolph are two of the better defenders on the team. If they aren’t playing corner, I can see DJ Eliot dialing up Nickel and Dime packages to take advantage of their skill sets. By playing Nickel, UK can place an “athlete” on the field to take the place of a linebacker. With health concerns at LB, this is logical.
–Kentucky goes 5 deep at defensive tackle. Melvin Lewis/Matt Elam/Jacob Hyde will occupy the center’s nose. At the 3 technique, the Cats can roll Regie Meant, Courtney Miggins, Adrian Middleton, CJ Johnson, and Tymere Dubose in and not have a significant drop off. When casually observing practice, the main visual difference in the 2014 and 2015 Wildcats is definitely the big guys up front.
–The safeties are as good as advertised. AJ Stamps and Marcus McWilson are the starters but Mike Edwards and Darius West will most definitely play. True freshman Marcus Walker is also going to be special. Safety depth is a defensive luxury. I found it funny to watch Mark Stoops coach em up during practice. Trust me on this, those five paid close attention to their coach’s instruction.
–Ryan Flannigan needs to hurry back. Filling in for the starter is senior Khalid Henderson. The drop off is noticeable and will effect defensive efficiency and scheme if Flannigan does not return prior to ULL. As stated above, I can see DJ Eliot playing more of a 3-3-5 or true Nickel defense to make up for LB deficiencies. Remember, diverse or multiple will be commonly used descriptions of the 2015 defensive Cats. Put it this way, DJ Eliot will have to win the Most Creative SEC Coordinator Award if Ryan Flannigan isn’t back by September 5th.
Overall, I have to wait and see UK play against Lafayette to accurately make a defensive judgement. The players are more athletic, faster, and seem to be playing with more discipline yet also with reckless abandon. I’m still concerned about the pass rush. Understandably, Kentucky will creatively blitz more than in years past.
One misconception that I continue to hear is that sack production will dramatically suffer due to the loss of Bud Dupree and Za’Darious Smith. Upon research, UK finished 9th in the SEC in total sacks. That’s 9/14. That number could actually improve. But also, that number doesn’t have that far to go to be at the bottom. I’m not as concerned as maybe I should be at replacing the senior pair. There replacement will be accomplished by scheme and varying personnel packages.
Practice was energetic and productive. Best part, no injuries. The next 6 days are the most dangerous camp days for injuries. Players are tired. Muscles are strained. Kentucky will need to finish camp intelligently. As for which true freshmen will play? We will find out within the next week. Prepping for Louisiana Lafayette should begin next Wednesday.