Mike Edwards surprised the Big Blue Nation by announcing that he will return to Kentucky for his senior season. Kentucky has turned offseason momentum into an experienced and talented defensive roster.
What the defense will exactly look like in 2018 is still uncertain. All-American linebacker Xavier Peters is committed to UK, but has yet to sign. Jordan Jones and Denzil Ware have yet to publicly state whether they will stay or go, and Mark Stoops has not commented on Ware’s status since he was suspended for the Music City Bowl.
Let’s assume Ware and Jones are back this fall and dream big dreams for what’s in store for the 2018 defense.
Nine of the Top Ten Tacklers Return
The only departing starters on Stoops’ defense are Courtney Love and Kendall Randolph. Seven of UK’s returning defensive starters have started for at least two seasons. That kind of consistency is foreign to Kentucky football teams. That kind of experience is substantial and immeasurable.
UK’s Defense has Proven Playmakers
Allen and Edwards aren’t just good defenders; they’re game-changers who create turnovers. Edwards played every role someone in the secondary can play, from safety to run-supporting and blitzing nickel back. He has the kind of skills you can’t coach. Allen caught the eyes of NFL scouts for his pass rushing ability, but he also forced two fumbles and picked off a pass. Those two, Jones and Ware combined for the majority of Kentucky’s defensive impact stats:
- Tackles for Loss: 30 of UK’s 63 on the season
- Interceptions: 6 of UK’s 11 INTs
- Sacks: 16.5 of UK’s 30 sacks
- Forced Fumbles: 5 of UK’s 10
Before he ever took the field, Josh Paschal looked like a guy who could make impact plays, but it took some time and game reps before he could do it consistently. Stoops will not have to wait for talented, inexperienced players to emerge as playmakers. He already has seniors who have been there, done that.
“Attitude Reflect Leadership”
Denzil Ware became a foundation on the defensive front line after he spent a year learning under Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith as a redshirt. Jordan Wright and Alex King got to do the same thing last year, this time behind Ware and Allen. Wright and King will not be forced into action right away, which will allow them to develop at their own pace, something Allen could not afford to do as a contributing true freshman in 2015.
Record Books are in Trouble
Edwards is one of the best tackling defensive backs to ever play at UK. The best tackling defensive back in the SEC for the last two years — his only two years as a starter — he needs a career-high 112 tackles to own that title in the UK record books. With four more interceptions, he’ll be second in UK history in that statistical category; to set a new record he needs eight, a daunting task.
Freddie Maggard believes Allen can surpass what appears to be an untouchable record set by Oliver Barnett in 1989. Allen needs 12 sacks to become the school’s all-time sack leader. If he plays to Freddie’s expectations (which he’s done throughout his Kentucky career), he’ll also hold the record for most sacks in a season. Bud Dupree, Dennis Johnson and Jeremy Jarmon all came close to Barnett’s record, but Freddie believes Allen has what it takes to get over the top.
Boom Williams did not handle his NFL decision the right way. He immediately declared for the NFL Draft following the TaxSlayer Bowl, before receiving any feedback from NFL officials and his head coach. As you already know, his NFL story did not have a happy ending.
Edwards and Allen could have been drafted this year. The two brought more NFL-ready talent to the table, but they went through the proper steps and understood there was more to gain in Lexington than from the NFL in 2018.
Kentucky’s Defense has the Potential to be Stoops’ Best
Am I willing to say it will be the best defense Mark Stoops has had at Kentucky? No. Kentucky was at best “average” in 2017. Just because players are returning, it’s not a given that the entire unit will improve and become consistent.
One thing I am willing to say: with a ton of talented weapons returning, Stoops will have zero excuses if his defense does not play exceptionally well in 2018.