Against South Carolina Kentucky missed its most ferocious defensive player and the SEC’s leading returning tackler from 2016. The Kentucky defense did not miss a beat in Jordan Jones’ absence, one that may be prolonged.
Jones did not appear on this week’s depth chart. Mark Stoops said today Jones is considered doubtful to play against Florida. “It would be a stretch. If something changes I’ll let you know.”
In his place, high school all-american Eli Brown excelled in his first opportunity to start at Will (weak inside) linebacker. Brown had six tackles, one for loss, and played almost every snap until cramps temporarily forced him to the sidelines in the second half. Stoops attributes Brown’s success to offseason improvements in the weight room.
“I was very pleased with the way Eli played,” Stoops said at today’s press conference. “I think he’s just been more consistent with his work, going back to last winter in trying to gain weight and get stronger. He really had a good fall practice camp and as I told ya Thursday, I was excited to see him play. He needed the opportunity to get quality reps and he didn’t disappoint us. He went in and played very well.”
When Brown cramped up following a third down stop near the goal line, Jamar “Boogie” Watson entered the game on a critical fourth and one. When the play went his way, Boogie made the stop to force a turnover on downs.
After the game Boogie broke down what happened on that play.
“I had A-gap, but I read the path of the back so I scraped tight on the d-line, charged pretty good, so I kept the o-line off me and I was able to run free and make the play.”
Boogie did not see many snaps, but that one was a lot of fun.
“It’s very rewarding,” Watson said. “You work hard all week in certain situations. You don’t know when you’re going to get in being a No. 2, so getting in on a fourth and one is pretty fun. My first big road game at a SEC school, it’s pretty fun.”
What makes this play even more impressive is that Watson had not played that position until last week.
“Monday Coach House called me in and told me J. Jones might be out this weekend and I have to play Will. I told him, ‘I’m with everything. I just want to play.'”
It’s the fourth different linebacker position Boogie has played in the last year. “I’ve learned all four at this point; Jack in the spring, Sam in the summer, Mike in camp, now I’m at Will. I’ve learned all four. I think they have a lot of trust in me that they put that much pressure on me to learn all four.”
“We appreciate him being very unselfish because we have a lot of confidence in him,” Stoops said today. “He’s a good football player. Just like Saturday, he went in and helped get a stop in a critical situation. Jamar’s done a great job. He’s going to be very good. He’s helping us fill some holes right now and play where we need him, but he’ll settle in and help us.”
Brown and Boogie’s ability to step in and succeed right away at Will is a testament to the Cats’ depth on defense. To mitigate the loss even further, players around Jones have stepped up.
Against South Carolina Courtney Love had 6 tackles and a pass break up. Derrick Baity had a team-high 8 tackles and an interception to earn SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors. Josh Allen and Denzil Ware combined for 7 tackles and 1.5 sacks. At safety, Mike Edwards and Darius West totaled 13 tackles.
Jones made more than 100 tackles in 2016 because he had to make plays all over the field. This year the entire defense has raised their level of play, and the guys behind Jones on the depth chart are prepared to step in seamlessly.
We do not know exactly how long the Kentucky defense will be without Jordan Jones, but rest assured, the third-best rush defense in America is in good hands.