Brad White’s unit finished fourth in the SEC’s total defense category in both 2019 and 2020. Kentucky has also led the conference in pass defense in the same time span. The UK defense has been opportunistic, physical and sound, but key personnel have moved on to the NFL Draft. Gone are starters Jamin Davis, Kelvin Joseph, Brandin Echols, Phil Hoskins, Boogie Watson and Quinton Bohanna. That’s a significant amount of production that must be replaced with departing starters on the first, second, and third level of the defense. Spring practice will be a time to identify and develop the next generation of defenders at critical spots along the two-deep depth chart. Let’s take a look:
Starters Lost: 2, Jamin Davis and Boogie Watson.
Returning Starters: 3, DeAndre Square, Jordan Wright, JJ Weaver.
Spring Practice Focus: Replacing Jamin Davis and Boogie Watson as well as establishing depth at 3 of the 4 LB positions.
Linebacker Jamin Davis’ recent projections list the departing junior as a first round selection in the 2021 NFL Draft. His rise from dependable backup to All SEC performer to first round Draft choice has been hasty and decisive. Replacing Davis will be a tough task. In UK’s defense, the inside linebacker position recently filled by Chris Oats and Jamin Davis must be a Dude. A role player will not suffice. This means that high level production from that position is a mandatory proposition in the Cat’s 3-4 defense. Jared Casey, Marquez Bembry, D’Eryk Jackson, and transfer Luke Fulton will vie to earn the starting nod along with providing quality depth behind DeAndre Square. Square is a veteran with demonstrated production. He will be one of the captains of the Wildcat defense in 2021.
Outside linebacker Boogie Watson played a great deal of football in Lexington. His high number of snaps means that potential replacements will be lacking experience. Now preparing for the NFL Draft, Watson’s absence is a significant storyline that’s not being discussed enough in pre-spring practice discussions. Watson finished his UK career with 29 starts, 107 tackles, 28.5 tackles for loss, 18.5 QB sacks, 14 QB hurries and 5 forced fumbles. With recent news that Sam Anaele was moved to defensive end, all signs point to Georgia Tech transfer Justice Dingle being inserted at the Jack linebacker position. Dingle played with his hand in the dirt a year ago at Tech. His transition back to a stand-up linebacker will be a critical happening in the offseason. In other words, UK needs Justice to be the man at the DE/OLB position.
Jordan Wright played opposite of Watson and is ready to take on the role as the Cat’s feature pass rusher. Wright finished 2020 with 45 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 QB sacks, 2 fumble recoveries, 3 forced fumbles and an interception. Following an explosive junior campaign, the south Florida native will be called upon to increase pass rush and disruption numbers. He’s joined by Freshman All SEC outside linebacker JJ Weaver who can also be considered as a returning starter. Weaver is recovering from knee surgery and will likely miss spring practice.
Starters Lost: 2, NT Quinton Bohanna, DT Phil Hoskins and long-time contributor Kordell Looney.
Returning Starters: 1, DE Josh Paschal.
Spring Practice Focus: Filling personnel gaps due to the departing starters and developing a dependable 2-deep rotation.
Nose tackle Quinton Bohanna’s has been a consistent anchor for one of the SEC’s top defenses. Marquan McCall will likely be the starter at nose tackle and will backed up by former 5-star prospect Justin Rogers. Defensive end Josh Paschal will captain the Wildcat defensive line. There are several players that will be vying to impress Coach Anwar Stewart this spring. This group includes veterans Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald, Jerquavion Mahone and Isaiah Gibson. There are also second year defensive linemen that will be looking to make a jump up the depth chart. That list includes Sam Anaele, Tre’Vonn Rybka, Josaih Hayes, and Octavious Oxendine. Establishing a 2-deep rotation and placing defensive linemen at specific positions will be a story to follow during spring practice. Last year’s recruiting haul of Rogers, Rybka, Hayes, Oxendine, and Anaele was considered to be one of the best in program history. It’s time for those players to justify lofty expectation and praise on the football field.
Starters Lost: 2, CB Kelvin Joseph and CB Brandin Echols.
Returning Starters: 4, Safety Yusuf Corker, Safety/Nickel Davonte Robinson, Safety/Nickel Tyrell Ajian, all-purpose DB Quandre Mosely.
Spring Focus: Identify cornerback starters.
The Wildcat pass defense allowed an SEC best 224 yards per game in 2021. It also topped the conference by intercepting 16 passes. Both starting corners are now preparing for the NFL Draft. Kelvin Joseph’s stock is rising and a select number of experts project the LSU transfer to be a first round selection. Fellow cornerback Brandin Echols also departs following a solid senior campaign. Carrington Valentine and Andru Phillips join veterans Quandre Mosely and Cedrick Dort Jr. to make up a deep list of corners whose goal will be to lock down a starting spot this spring.
The Safety/Nickel position returns the most experience in the secondary and is led by Yusuf Corker. Corker is one of the best safeties in the Southeastern Conference. Davonte Robinson’s decision to return for an additional year of eligibility solidified this talented and experienced group. Quandre Mosely has played every position in the secondary and will be Brad White’s utility man in the third level. Hard hitting Vito Tisdale packs a punch and is ready to make steady gains based on the invaluable experience as a true freshman. Returning starter Tyrell Ajian is a confirmed big-play defensive back and also brings positional versatility to the Wildcat secondary. Moses Douglass has waited his time and is ready to compete for quality minutes. Additional defensive backs will have an opportunity to impress this spring. This group includes Jalen Geiger, Taj Dodson, Joel Williams.
The Wildcat secondary has been a consistent bright spot over the past three seasons. I don’t expect this to change even after losing Joseph and Echols to the NFL. Safety Yusuf Corker is a future pro. Davonte Robinson and Quandre Mosely are experienced defenders that can play multiple positions. All eyes will be on the cornerback position. Should be a fun competition during spring practice.
WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN?
The program’s personality and success have heavily leaned on its opportunistic defense. After back-to-back 4th place finishes in the SEC’s total defense category, coordinator Brad White is a validated star in coaching circles. However, he must replace multiple familiar names and a great deal of production. UK’s defense has proven to be successful in player development. That trend needs to stay true after losing 55% of its starters.
Replacing key contributors will grab the headlines. However, I’d argue that developing a pass rush is priority number one. Kentucky recorded 38 QB sacks in 2018, 33 in 2019, but just 15 a year ago. In today’s SEC that features high-speed offenses and highly talented skill players, disrupting opposing quarterbacks is now a magnified mandate. The Cats must find a way to increase its QB sack total in 2021. That’s non-negotiable. In total, Kentucky’s defense shouldn’t take a noticeable drop even with the loss of six starters.