Better or worse? Previewing Kentucky's defense in 2019
Editor’s note: This is the 3rd in a series previewing every SEC East team’s defense. Coming Thursday: Missouri.
Defense was supposed to be Mark Stoops’ calling card when he was hired in late 2012 to take over Kentucky’s woebegone football program. That said, Stoops’ first 5 seasons didn’t show a ton of defensive improvement. Kentucky’s defense allowed 30+ points per game in 3 of those seasons, and never allowed fewer than 27.4 points per game or 394.2 yards per game.
But a funny thing happened in 2018. Led by Nagurski Award winner Josh Allen and a tough veteran secondary, Kentucky surprised most of the SEC and college football — mostly with defense. The Wildcats finished 2nd in the SEC in scoring defense, allowing just 16.8 points per game, and 4th in the league in yardage allowed, at just 332.7 yards per game.
Considering that you’d have to look into the 1970s to find a Kentucky defense that equaled both numbers, it’s probably unfair to expect Kentucky to reach the same level in 2019. Allen will be busy in the NFL, as will several of UK’s top defensive backs. If Kentucky wants to approach the type of 10-win, Citrus Bowl winning magic that their 2018 season contained, they’ll have to avoid too big of a slide on defense.
But can they?
Pressuring the QB: Worse
Kentucky had 38 sacks in 2018, led by a program-record 17 from the now departed Allen. Kentucky returns some potential stars, including junior Jamar Watson, who had 5 sacks in 2018, and sophomore defensive lineman Josh Pascal, who missed most of the season after a cancer scare. While Kentucky can’t replace Allen with one player, it does have improved depth. UK had 30 sacks in 2017, when Allen was merely human (7 sacks). They could stick around that level, but they can’t realistically expect to improve on 2018.
Run defense: Better
On the other hand, Kentucky might improve against the run. The Wildcats were only so-so, finishing 8th in the SEC with 146.4 yards per game allowed on the ground (and a relatively ho-hum 4.1 yards per carry). Kentucky will return defensive line stalwarts like 6-9, 310-pound Calvin Taylor (26 tackles, 6 for loss) and 6-4, 340-pound Quinton Bohanna (17 tackles, 4 for loss). Senior linebacker Kash Daniel (84 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss) will lead as well, and young guns DeAndre Square and Chris Oats played well in 2018 as freshmen.
While Kentucky has some significant personnel losses, most weren’t positions that played a priority in defending the run. The formula is right for some mild improvement in run defense in 2019.
Passing defense: Worse
This is the danger zone. Senior safety Darius West? Gone. Fellow safety Mike Edwards? Ditto. Corners Lonnie Johnson (2nd-round NFL Draft pick), Derrick Baity, and Chris Westry? Also gone. Kentucky will have to adjust on the fly in the secondary.
Sophomore Davonte Robinson (42 tackles, 4 passes broken up) suddenly is the wily veteran of this group, which will feature some JUCOs and some untested youngsters. Sophomore Tyrell Ajian is another semi-familiar face of this fairly anonymous group. Opponents have dinged Kentucky in the air against Stoops (251.6 yards per game passing in 2017), and the spring Blue/White game indicated that QB Terry Wilson improved massively or that the secondary was pretty vulnerable. The second is unfortunately more likely than the first.
Furthermore, the loss of the endless QB pressures that Allen brought can’t help but make life a little tougher for the UK secondary. They’ll be expected to hold up longer against opposing receivers, and most of the players who end up drawing those tasks won’t have a ton of experience.
Ultimately, secondary is a growth area for this team. If Stoops hopes to have a big 2019 season, he’ll need to pull a few aces out of his sleeve with a thin and inexperienced secondary. Granted, he coached up the stars who now departed, so the ability is there … but will the results be? It won’t be like 2018, but Stoops might be more occupied with trying to keep it from being too ugly.
Special teams: Better
Junior punter Max Duffy was a massive success in 2018. With the departure of grad transfer Matt Panton, the punting situation was something of an unknown with Aussie transfer Duffy basically being handed the job. Back-up punter Grant McKinniss was quickly handed the kickoff job when it became clear that Duffy was solid.
Duffy averaged 44.8 yards per kick, 3rd in the SEC, and the Wildcats generally avoided many big miscues in the return game, netting 40.2 yards per kick, 5th in the league. Half of Duffy’s 60 punts were downed inside the opponents’ 20. Meanwhile, McKinniss flourished on kickoffs, delivering 36 touchbacks on 66 kickoffs, and helping Kentucky rank in the top half of the SEC on coverage.
Given that both were relatively inexperienced but played well, there’s no reason to think they won’t improve. Given Kentucky’s improved depth, returns shouldn’t be as hair-raising as they’ve been with some prior UK head coaches. This group was sharp in 2018, but it could be even better this fall.
After years of being in the bottom of the SEC, Kentucky delivered a genuinely tough defense in 2018. Considering that it allowed fewer points per game than Alabama did, it’s probably not realistic to even consider a better performance in 2019.
That said, Kentucky’s offense was fairly anemic last season, and as it shows more diversity and explosiveness, the defense will have some room to take a step back. While Kentucky can’t replicate its defense from 2018, it also shouldn’t replicate its defenses from 2013-2017. As long as this squad can work between those extremes, it’ll probably end up doing pretty well.