We’ve given a breakdown of how the offense performed in the spring game, but it’s now time to jump over to the other side of the football. Mark Stoops has put together a handful of really good defenses in his coaching career and last year’s version at Kentucky was one of his best. But that is over and entering this season the Wildcats have a ton of questions to answer.
Gone is Matt House and in steps Brad White into the coordinator role. Ole Miss assistant Jon Sumrall was brought back to his alma mater to coach inside linebackers at UK and the Wildcats figure to have a very strong front seven. That’s the good news, but there is also some bad news. With the loss of Josh Allen and five seniors in the secondary, pass rush and pass coverage will be a very substantial worry entering the season. Leaving the spring game, it was clear that those two spots still need quite a bit of polish.
We must always remember that spring games are built for offenses to have success. The defensive fronts are limited in the types of looks and stunts they can run while the secondary usually vanillas down the coverage. There was a reason we saw a ton of points at Kroger Field.
With all that said, there were still some very important takeaways from the spring game to address after watching the game tape.
On the line of scrimmage, we saw Quinton Bohanna, T.J. Carter, and Calvin Taylor, Jr. open the game as the starters but they were not the only players that contributed. Joshua Paschal and Kordell Looney both received a heavy amount of reps with UK’s top defense and the group limited the white team to just 58 yards on 23 carries. That will win you some football games.
Due to the absence of Marquan McCall, we got to see redshirt freshman Jerquavion Mahone in action and the Georgia native looks like someone who could potentially crack the rotation at nose. Phil Hoskins figures to add depth at tackle while there are plenty of young players waiting in the wings.
At the next level, we were unable to see Kash Daniel with the senior being limited during the entire spring session due to precautionary reasons. The wrestling loving middle linebacker is the unquestioned leader of the group and has played a lot of football. We know what we’re getting from him, but we got to see how the development is going with UK’s trio of sophomore inside linebackers.
With Daniel out, sophomore Chris Oats got the start at Mike and the former four-star recruit collected seven tackles in the game. Oats, who in a limited sample size, recorded 27 tackles last season looks the part of a big-time SEC linebacker. On film, the sophomore looked bigger and showed more comfortability within the structure of the defense. After the game, Oats confirmed that he is working at both Mike and Will spots. With Daniel’s return to the lineup it wouldn’t be a surprise if Oats gets the start at the Will spot to begin the season.
DeAndre Square remains a reliable option at Will after recording 35 tackles with a start in the Citrus Bowl last season. Jamin Davis played both the Mike and the Will for the ones and in his third spring the redshirt sophomore looks poised to make an impact this fall.
On the edges is where the questions are. Kentucky should feel pretty good at what they have at Sam linebacker. Boogie Watson was solid in the spring game and is UK’s top returning pass rusher with seven career sacks. Backing him up appears to be Jared Casey and the highest ranked recruit in the class of 2019 will likely play this season. The true freshman was one of the white team’s most productive players recording seven tackles and a QB hurry. However, this position group will be graded on how well they fill the hole at Jack.
The Jack spot is a defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid role that this defense relies on to make a ton of plays. Yes, this spot needs to create a consistent pass rush, but they also need to make run stuffs and have the ability to occasionally drop back in coverage to make a play. We saw the latter in the spring game.
Jordan Wright was a big recruiting win late in the class of 2017 and after two years of development, it is time for the former high school basketball star to make an impact. Wright has the size and frame (6-foot-5, 242 pounds) to be a big time edge player in the SEC. He’s shown the athletic ability and has the raw skills (25 sacks recorded during his senior year of high school). Now he just has to put it together.
On tape, Wright was all over the field for the first-team defense. The South Florida native collected four tackles, an interception, and a pass break-up in addition to creating some edge pressure with a speed rush. Brad White, who has been really hard on this position group, mentioned that the spring game was the best Wright has played all spring. Maybe that’s a good sign. Kentucky is going to need this guy to produce and play to that recruiting ranking.
On the final level, Kentucky has some holes but they have one for sure reliable option at safety. Davonte Robinson started three games last fall and recorded 42 tackles on his way to becoming one of the defense’s top slot corners. Now everyone from last year’s secondary is gone except Robinson. UK is going to need the redshirt junior to be a rock steady player this season. In the spring game, Robinson led all defenders with eight tackles and don’t be surprised if he leads the team in stops this season. Expect Mark Stoops to use his versatile safety close to the line scrimmage as much as possible.
At the other safety spot, senior Jordan Griffin got the start for UK’s base defense. The senior has played all over the secondary during his career and will bring much needed experience to the table. He also appears to be Robinson’s top backup at nickel. When UK went to a subpackage defense, Yusuf Corker was the third safety they brought in with the ones. After playing mostly just special teams last season, the redshirt sophomore looks ready for a bigger role. Right now redshirt sophomore Tyrell Ajian appears to be the fourth safety and that’s a good option to have. The Mansfield, Ohio native was a starter for UK’s dime defense last season and recorded that huge fourth quarter interception in the win over Mississippi State.
Kentucky should feel really good about their safety position. Safeties coach Dean Hood has a nice blend of talent and experience to deal with in his position group and that’s not even mentioning blue-chip true freshman Moses Douglass. This group is in very good shape. That cannot be said for the cornerback position.
Gone are Derrick Baity, Lonnie Johnson, and Chris Westry to the NFL. Now, in his fourth season on the staff, cornerbacks coach Steve Clinkscale has his work cut out for him rebuilding this position. One good thing moving forward is that UK appears to have a building block in junior college transfer Brandin Echols.
The Northwest Mississippi Community College transfer is a smaller corner than what we’ve seen recently from Kentucky (5-foot-11, 174 pounds) but it’s clear he is CB1 heading into the summer. Despite his short stature, we saw his ability to hold his own in man coverage against a bigger receiver.
Echols looked the part in coverage and made a nice, physical tackle against bruising tailback Christopher Rodriguez, Jr. in run support. UK played him at both field and boundary corner, but it appears he is now a lock to open up the season a starter on the outside. After that there are a lot of unknowns.
Cedrick Dort, Jr. was the other starting corner and he had some rocky moments. Jamari Brown got some reps with the ones while everyone else was mostly with the white team. Junior college transfer Quandre Mosely was burned by Isaiah Epps on a deep post, Stanley Garner did not appear to make an impact, and Taj Dodson looked like a true freshman.
Going into the summer, UK probably feels good about Echols but after that it’s wide open. There are three more corners enrolling in the summer and each should get a good, hard look in fall camp. The fact of the matter is that this group has a long way to go and this could be a season where a bunch of players get a shot to play big snaps at corner.
This is a defense with obvious strengths and weaknesses. Up the middle, this is set to be the best defense of the Mark Stoops era. The Wildcats have talent, experience, and depth on the defensive line. At linebacker, Kash Daniel sets the tone while Chris Oats and Boogie Watson look like future draft picks. Davonte Robinson is another pro at safety and senior Jordan Griffin brings a good amount of experience to the table. Where the worry lies is on the edges.
Right now it’s fair to say that this defense’s two most important players this season will be Brandin Echols and Jordan Wright. The Wildcats need the junior college corner to be good right away so they have a dependable piece to lean on while they figure what to do at the other corner spot. At the very important Jack linebacker spot, Jordan Wright has to fill the monstrous shoes of Josh Allen and that’s going to be an uphill climb to say the least. However, the position is tailor-made to make a lot of plays. Wright has all the tools needed to succeed at the position.
If the Wildcats are able to keep the momentum from last season and play at a top 30 or 4o level, both Echols and Wright will probably be the main reason why.