One deficiency jumps off the stat sheet when studying Kentucky’s returning defensive starters. In a year when some are projecting UK to compete for an East title, defensive line production will continually be addressed.
The Wildcat defense showed significant improvement in its final eleven games by lowering its allowed point average from 44.5 to 27 points per game. A great deal of that trajectory can be credited to Mark Stoops assuming play calling duties. Other causative factors were the emergence of a skilled group of sophomore linebackers and defensive backs.
When analyzing the three levels of defense in relation to 2017; the defensive line contains the lowest statistical producers. And, unlike at secondary and linebacker, it has no players receiving SEC preseason accolades. Here’s a breakdown of returning defensive starters:
The SEC’s top returning tackler is all-conference linebacker Jordan Jones. Early preseason All SEC teams also include OLB Denzil Ware. Those forthcoming may also feature Josh Allen. Allen, Ware, and Jones are listed as SEC Top 5 performers at their respective positions.
As you can hear on Wednesday’s Depth Chart Podcast, Kentucky has historically produced prolific inside linebackers. The emergence of junior linebackers Josh Allen and Denzil Ware has brought on the pass rush and explosive stat producing edge defender. There is quality depth at all four positions. The LB position is trending upward.
- Jordan Jones: 109 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss (TFL), 4 QB sacks.
- Courtney Love: 76 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 QB sack.
- Josh Allen: 62 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 7 QB sacks.
- Denzil Ware: 70 tackles, 12 TFL, 5.5 QB sacks.
The SEC’s second top returning tackler is safety Mike Edwards. Edwards and CB Derrick Baity tied for 4th in the SEC for most interceptions in 2016.
Mike Edwards is arguably the best safety in the conference. CB Derrick Baity is on the verge of being mentioned in the All SEC circles. CB Chris Westry had a solid, but not spectacular sophomore season statistically; but is somewhat limited playing the boundary corner. Identifying a starting safety to go along side Edwards will be a pressing fall camp matter. Overall, Kentucky’s secondary is the most talented in recent memory. All secondary positions are significantly trending upward.
- Chris Westry: 43 tackles, .5 TFL, 1 INT, 3 Pass breakup (PBU)
- Derrick Baity: 42 tackles, 2 TFL, 3 INT, 7 PBU
- Mike Edwards: 100 tackles, 5.5 TLF, 3 INT, .5 QB sack, 8 PBU,
- Adrian Middleton: 35 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 0 QB sacks
- Naquez Pringle: 39 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 QB sack.
Naquez Pringle was favorably productive in just five starts, but the NT position must find quality depth. DT Adrian Middleton’s 2016 and spring performance provide hope for the junior to have a breakout season.
Depth and production is questionabe at all three defensive line positions. This especially applies in the explosive play category (QB sacks, TFL, FF-forced fumble, QBH-quarterback hurry). I often get ridiculed for spending too much time discussing the line-of-scrimmage. For that, I do not apologize. Regardless of continuous skill position obsession, the SEC is a line-of-scrimmage league.
Organic, or DT-NT-DE, numbers must increase in order to take the pressure of the linebackers and secondary. Secondary interception numbers could increase with an improved DL pass rush. A more definitive DL run push could increase tackles for linebackers and decrease that same category for the secondary. Defense is much like its offensive counterpart; it takes all eleven.
There are promising additions in TJ Carter, Calvin Taylor, and Kordell Looney. JUCO product Phil Hoskins and possibly true freshman Quinton Bohanna could be called upon for early contribution. Make no mistake, the Kentucky defensive line will be scrutinized in 2017.