The D-word is a curse word for Kentucky’s inside linebackers. No, not that D-Word. “Depth” in Jon Sumrall’s meeting room is the only thing that can slow down Mark Stoops’ defense this fall.
In his first year as defensive coordinator, Brad White’s defense finished ranked in the top 20 nationally in three of the four major statical categories: pass defense (2nd), total defense (20th) and scoring defense (14th). All but four significant contributors return in 2020, teeing up for what could be the best defense most Kentucky fans have ever seen.
If you scan through the depth chart, Stoops and White have at least two solid options at each position. If one person does not have a lengthy list of college stats, they came to Lexington as a blue chip recruit. Kentucky has an abundance of depth everywhere on defense with one exception: inside linebacker.
Kash Daniel was prepared to pass the torch to DeAndre Square, a member of the SEC’s All-Freshman team in 2017, and former four-star recruit Chris Oats. Following a medical emergency this summer, Oats’ football future is in doubt and he is unexpected to play this fall.
“The kids we coach, they’re not just football players. They’re a part of our lives and we’re a part of their lives,” Sumrall told KSR earlier this month. “Anything that happens to a kid you coach you feel like it’s a family member because it is. Your heart goes out to Chris’s family. We’ve obviously been in great contact with them and just want to support them in every way we’re allowed to possible.”
Without Oats in the picture, Sumrall must develop a four-man rotation with only four players. Take a glimpse at the young men who are faced with a tall task.
No. 44 made a big splash as soon as he stepped on the scene, recording a team-high eight tackles in the 2017 Blue/White game as an early enrollee. Called ‘Shadow’ by his teammates, we only saw Davis sporadically until the fall of 2019. The Mike (middle) linebacker got off to a rocky start, forced to battle through minor injuries. Despite the early struggles, Sumrall never saw Davis get down on himself.
“As the year progressed he didn’t pout, he didn’t mope, he didn’t feel sorry for himself,” Sumrall said. “He just went about his work and continued to show up and invest. In the last four or five games in particular you saw him take some steps where suddenly, ‘okay, I can be a major factor on this defense.'”
In the final four games of the season Davis had 25 tackles, more than the total combined tackles from the first 24 games of his career. He picked off his first pass against UT-Martin and got his first sack against Louisville, setting a new career-high in the Governor’s Cup with seven tackles. Something clicked for Davis entering the homestretch of the season and he never looked the same.
“You never know when it’s going to click, right? That piece is always one of the most intriguing parts of development in our game. It’s a mental game and a physical game. In the mental piece there are so many different layers in regards to communication, which is obviously knowledge. If you’ve got knowledge you can play with confidence, and if you’ve got confidence you can play fast and physical. The knowledge and the vision piece — knowing what you’re doing and being able to communicate at inside linebacker — is paramount,” Sumrall continued. “You can’t play the game if you can’t speak the game. You’re the mouthpiece. You gotta talk to the front four, you gotta talk to the outside guys, you gotta talk to everybody. That’s probably the two most understated parts of the position.”
Now Sumrall must help two newcomers understand the mental aspect of the position and how to correctly communicate by teaching from afar.
Marquez Bembry and Jared Casey
Kentucky’s two second-team inside linebackers did not play the position in 2019. Junior college transfer Marquez Bembry and former four-star recruit Jared Casey were brought to Lexington to rush the passer as outside linebackers. Instead of backing up Boogie Watson, Bembry will play the Mike behind Davis, while Casey learns how to play ‘Will’ (weak-side) linebacker behind Square.
“You really wish we had spring practice for those guys, but we did get five of ’em in. We got at least something which is better than nothing. They both have shown some progress in regards to the move,” said Sumrall.
Bembry missed most of the 2019 season after he underwent knee surgery in the spring. Despite the setback, he played in a few games last fall, recording his first career tackle against Vanderbilt. With two years of eligibility remaining, Sumrall has seen Bembry step up by speaking out during their regular Zoom meetings.
“During the virtual meeting stuff he has really stepped up in regards to communication and having a knowledge of the defense. Now, there’s a difference obviously in speaking it and doing it, but I do see where he is taking some steps in the right direction to where he can be prepared if he keeps on investing. He’s got the physical tools and so does Jared Casey.”
Casey played outside and inside linebacker at Louisville Ballard High School. His size and athleticism might even make him a better fit for his new position. To take the next step, Casey’s communication skills must improve. A quiet kid by nature, Sumrall is pushing Casey to come out of his shell.
“Jared’s got the physical tools. The biggest thing that I’ve talked to Jared about and he knows this is Jared has got to assert himself and be comfortable being uncomfortable. Be vocal, be loud, get out there a little bit. Jared’s a kid that does not lack for intelligence. He’s got a good mind. It’s just investing in that process and preparation so that he can have that confidence.”
Despite the perceived steps forward, gauging how each player has improved is almost impossible. That must be determined on the field and unfortunately, coronavirus took away two-thirds of their spring practice reps.
Once a talented young prospect from Detroit, Square has quickly turned into the room’s leader.
“He has now embraced being the old-head in the room and has stepped up and become more vocal,” Sumrall explained. “He’s become more confident in being vocal.”
Sumrall leads the position group’s meetings at the start of the week. By Friday, he hands the keys over to Square. A player who eats and sleeps football, Square mastered the mental side of the position during his first two yers in Lexington. Now he must physically prepare his body for the damage it will take by playing 12 games of SEC football.
In Square’s first game as Kentucky’s starter at Will linebacker, he recorded a career-high 11 tackles against Toledo, 1.5 TFLs and made his first career interception. He finished second on the team in tackles with 69, but production slowly tapered off throughout the season. Square averaged seven tackles per game entering the month of November. He only hit that marker one more time in the final five games and he was sidelined completely against UT-Martin.
To help Square appropriately prepare his body, Sumrall asked his former UK teammate, Wesley Woodyard, to share what he’s learned after playing in the NFL for a decade.
“Wesley’s naturally not a huge guy. He sort of in cycles had to know how to prepare his body for the season. There’s a build-up and then there’s sort of a pull off the gas a little bit and then a rebuild up, from a diet and from a strength and conditioning standpoint,” Sumrall said.
“Getting physically prepared is a big piece for him (Square). And some of it is I gotta do a better job of getting him off the field. Last year I felt like I could’ve done a better job early of giving him some time in games off the field. Within that, some of it was Jamin banged up and depth not being there.”
Herin lies Sumrall’s paradox: You can’t sit starters to keep them healthy if there aren’t any other viable options.
“Ideally we want to play at least four guys. You saw the way we played the game last year at the back of end of the year — you saw Kash, Square, Oats and Jamin — in every one of those games all four of them were playing 12-15 snaps at minimum. That’s the goal is to hopefully have four inside that can play 20+ snaps apiece and spread the load a little bit. Therefore depth is a big factor for sure.”
Sumrall will have four guys to start preseason training camp. How capable are the two newcomers and how long can they stay healthy are two questions we will ask throughout the 2020 football season.