We wrap up our 2020 season position previews hours before the Cats kickoff against the Tigers. This post is brought to you by the number two. It takes two to make a thing go right and that’s exactly what’s happening in UK’s linebacker room.
Leaders in the Room
The inside and outside linebackers are each linebackers, but the Will and the Mike are much different than the Sam and the Jack. #31 Boogie Watson is the Sam, rushing from the edge as the SEC’s leading returning sacker. The trajectory of Boogie’s career is pointing toward an incredible senior campaign as he makes a move to climb up the UK record books in career sacks. Over the last three years he’s recorded 13.5 career sacks, only 4.5 away from cracking the top five in school history.
At the inside position, #5 DeAndre Square has been playing Will ever since he arrived on campus from Detroit. In his three years he’s steadily improved and the once undersized linebacker is no longer undersized.
Chris Oats’ absence will be much less noticeable with #44 Jamin Davis making plays at Mike linebacker. The redshirt junior from Georgia was a slow cooker, but came on strong in the second half of 2019. A physical presence inside against the run, the key from Davis is remaining healthy, one of his primary goals throughout the extended offseason in the weight room and at the training table.
Similar to Davis, #15 Jordan Wright took a little bit longer than some expected to turn it on, but once he did, he never looked back. Wright and his position coach, Brad White, spoke at length about Wright’s progression that culminated with a scoop and score touchdown to end the season in the Belk Bowl.
Playing behind Wright at the Jack position, formerly held by Josh Paschal and Josh Allen, is a bad man, #13 J.J. Weaver. A four-star prospect from Louisville Moore High School, we only saw him in four games during his redshirt season. During that short amount of time, Weaver looked impressive. A player coaches admire for “taking his medicine,” Mark Stoops has gotten a few preseason laughs from his coaches’ show when fans suggest that Weaver will be here for four years. This guy has “it” and could be the breakthrough player on UK’s defense this fall.
The other highly-touted Louisville linebacker in Weaver’s recruiting class is #6 Jared Casey. The Ballard product began his career playing behind Boogie Watson at Sam. Lacking depth inside, Casey moved to a position he played previously, Will linebacker. Now DeAndre Square’s primary backup, another former outside linebacker is backing up Jamin Davis, #42 Marquez Bembry. White says each are far from a finished product, but he’s confident that each player can provide Square and Davis with some much needed rest.
“All of them are going to have to play for us in some capacity,” White said last week. “We know about those first two, but they can’t play every snap this year. We feel confident that when Casey or Bembry or D’Eryk’s (Jackson’s) number is called they’ll be able to go in and they’ll be more than sufficient. Are any of the three where we want them to be ultimately? No, they’re still growing within that position but they’ve taken significant strides to give us comfort that when they go in the game they’ll be able to function.”
The final piece of the puzzle is #47 KD McDaniel. One of Adam Luckett’s favorite signees in 2019, he’ll spell Boogie as the second Sam linebacker
Kentucky has been known for excellent linebacker play for decades. From Jim Kovach in the 70’s to senior Boogie Watson, the Cats have produced a plethora of talent at the LB position. On any given Sunday you can see Josh Allen (Jaguars), Za’Darius Smith (Packers), Avery Williamson (Jets), Danny Trevathan (Bears), and Bud Dupree (Steelers) making plays from sideline to sideline. The 2020 Wildcat linebacker corps is shaping up to keep up that tradition.
The star of the group is Strongside or Sam LB Jamar “Boogie” Watson. The preseason All-SEC senior is the league’s top returner in the QB Sack category after registering 6.5 in 2019 to go along with 36 tackles and 11.5 tackles for loss. His running mate at the “Jack” or DE/LB slot is Jordan Wright. Wright has added weight and strength to his 6’5, 233-pound frame. His development was obvious down the stretch a year ago. A pair of redshirt freshmen back up Watson and Wright. K.D. McDaniel is listed as Boogie Watson’s backup on the 2-deep depth chart and J.J. Weaver is behind Jordan Wright. Weaver was a highly sought after recruit from Louisville that has tremendous promise.
DeAndre Square is the leader of the defense at the Weakside or “Will” LB position. The junior from Detroit is now 6’1, 225-pounds. Square was second on the team with 69 tackles in 2019. He also recorded 4 tackles for loss, 1.5 QB sack, and 1 interception. He’s joined on the inside with middle linebacker Jamin Davis. At 6’4, 234-pounds, Davis has the range that is required from a 3-4 inside backer. A pair of newcomers man the second team. 6’3, 221- redshirt freshman Jared Casey is behind Square. Casey was moved from the outside to the inside and will be playing his first game snaps at his new position against Auburn. JUCO transfer Marquez Bembry backs up Jamin Davis. Bembry recorded one tackle in limited action against Vanderbilt a year ago.
Defensive coordinator and outside linebacker coach Brad White is known for player development. Veteran Boogie Watson is poised to have a strong senior campaign and Jordan Wright is an up-and-coming player in the Southeastern Conference. Inside linebacker coach Jon Sumrall will rely on DeAndre Square to be the quarterback of the defense. Middle linebacker Jamin Davis is filling in for Chris Oats but has played a ton of meaningful snaps.
This position group is critical in Brad White’s 3-4 defense. Expect Watson to be back in the hunt to lead the SEC in QB sacks and DeAndre Square will compete to lead the league in tackles.
Biggest Question Mark
Depth. Depth. Depth. Depth. Depth. “You have to have four linebackers to play in the SEC.” Well, Kentucky has exactly that many at its outside and inside positions. True freshman #56 D’Eryk Jackson is technically a fifth that can play inside, but the pickins are slim. Even if everyone remains healthy, the young, inexperienced guys are going to have to play. If they aren’t disciplined in their run fits, luckily Yusuf Corker is waiting to correct any mistakes. Still, there’s no time to easily get acquainted with the position. They’ll face maybe their toughest test of the season in week one against Gus Malzahn’s run game that relies misdirection.
One Bold Prediction
“J.J. Weaver will finish the season as UK’s top pass rusher.”
Brad White knocked on wood and said, “The pass rush is the least of my worries.” Kentucky has plenty of options and the redshirt freshman has the potential to be the best of the best.