Better or worse? Can UK's defense surprise again in 2020?
Editor’s note: This is the 3rd in a series previewing every SEC East team’s defense. Next: Missouri.
Can Kentucky’s defense do it again? Sure, Mark Stoops was brought to town to shore up a ragged UK defensive unit. But in his first 5 years, the changes went from incremental to non-existent. Between 2013 and 2017, Stoops’ defenses allowed from 27 to 31 points per game, and allowed 394 or more yards per game. Not awful, but not the stuff needed to turn around Kentucky football.
But then came 2018, when 16.8 points and 338 yards per game were allowed along with 38 sacks. That defense led Kentucky to a 10-3 season. Surely the Wildcats couldn’t repeat such a performance in 2019, said conventional wisdom.
Well, they didn’t, but with 19.3 points and 325 yards per game allowed, along with 33 more sacks, Kentucky’s follow up was only mildly less impressive than the 2018 group. Can UK pull another rabbit out of its hat in 2020? Let’s see.
Rushing the QB: Better?
Expectations in 2019 were that Kentucky would struggle without all-world LB Josh Allen. They didn’t really struggle at all. Senior DT Calvin Taylor had 8.5 sacks, among the best in the SEC, and Kentucky chipped in a little production from everywhere to stay solid in getting to passers.
Kentucky does lose a few players of note — Taylor and DE T.J. Carter among them — but UK also returns a couple of standouts in senior Quinton Bohanna and sophomore DE Josh Paschal. Paschal redshirted in 2018 after missing most of the year following a melanoma scare and returned to post 9.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks last year. Bohanna is a massive lane clogger, as is backup Marquan McCall.
Kentucky adds an unprecedented group of talented freshmen on the defensive line, including 4-star Michigan tackle Justin Rogers, massive Mississippi tackle Josaih Hayes, and Florida speed rusher Samuel Anaele. This group left recruiting analysts ranking UK’s defensive line haul as among the nation’s best. Between the new guys and the returnees, UK will be fine up front.
Meanwhile, senior linebacker Jamar “Boogie” Watson is often mentioned as a player who could have a Josh Allen-like breakout, and don’t be surprised if he leads the Wildcats in sacks in 2020. Watson led the Wildcats in tackles for loss (11.5) in 2019, and had 7 QB hurries along with 6.5 sacks. The 6-3, 248-pound backer has the speed to complement UK’s newfound heft inside.
Rushing Defense: Better
Kentucky wasn’t great against the run in 2019. The Wildcats were 11th in the SEC with almost 157 yards per game allowed on the ground, including 4.6 yards per carry. The good news is that UK loses little against the run. The aforementioned defensive line losses might be offset by new recruits, and while linebackers Kash Daniel (graduation), Chris Oats (health issue) and Xavier Peters (transfer) will all apparently be gone in 2020, Kentucky returns enough personnel to show improvement against the run.
Start with junior linebacker DeAndre Square, who was 2nd on the Wildcats in tackles last year (69). Junior linebacker Jamin Davis also had 32 stops in part-time appearances last season. Highly touted freshmen Jared Casey and J.J. Weaver were able to redshirt, and they figure to see significant time in their freshman campaigns. While Kentucky loses plenty of experience at linebacker, they are often replacing bulkier players with swifter athletes, and that combines neatly with the bulk coming in on the defensive line.
Passing Defense: Worse
Perhaps the biggest surprise of Kentucky’s 2019 defense was that a group boasting only 1 player with significant D1 experience (senior Jordan Griffin) ended up leading the SEC in pass defense (allowing only 167.8 yards per game via the air). Sure, Kentucky seemed to lead the SEC in horrifically rainy games (Georgia, Missouri, and Mississippi State all would qualify for that distinction). But even when opponents could throw, they didn’t do it very well, as UK allowed 9 passing touchdowns against coming down with 8 interceptions.
Junior Yusuf Corker led the Wildcats in tackles last season (74) and added an interception, 4 passes broken up and 2 fumble recoveries. He had only 8 career tackles coming into last season but figures to be a standout safety for UK in 2020. Redshirt Davonte Robinson missed 2019 with a leg injury but should be back in 2020 to lend a hand in the secondary.
Surprise standouts at cornerback like sophomore Jamari Brown (7 pass breakups) and junior Cedric Dort (5 breakups) will be a year older and more experienced. With only Jordan Griffin gone from the 2019 secondary, UK should have a fine group on the field.
But the schedule in 2020 won’t be as favorable. Joe Moorhead’s woebegone passing game will be replaced by Mike Leach’s group at Mississippi State. An impotent Arkansas offense will be swapped out on the schedule for a game against Auburn. Even in the era of pandemics and odd goings-on, surely Kentucky won’t play nearly half the schedule in a pouring rain again.
Kentucky might well make more interceptions and big plays in pass defense in 2020, but they’ll almost certainly give up more passing yards than they did last season.
Special Teams: Worse
Kentucky will break in a new kickoff man with Grant McKinniss leaving the team as a grad transfer. He will be hard to replace, as 48 of his 67 kickoffs in 2019 ended in touchbacks.
On the other hand, senior punter Max Duffy is a returning Ray Guy award winner. Not only does he punt for a high average, but his rugby-style boots often pin opponents and give up few big returns (UK allowed only 95 punt return yards all year, 4th-fewest in the SEC).
Kentucky led the SEC in net punting in 2019, and could do so again in 2020. The kickoff coverage unit was 2nd in the conference, and that might be harder to replicate. It’d be tough for this group to be better … so the trend almost has to be a slight decline.
Here’s the thing — Kentucky’s defense will struggle to replicate some of the statistics posted in 2019. It’s likely that UK gives up more than 325 yards per game, and perhaps more than 19.3 points per game.
It’s also likely that UK’s defense will be able to create more turnovers and momentum-killing plays, albeit doing so without a UK offense that could grind out clock-killing run-heavy drives at will.
Kentucky’s defense will probably be better at keeping the Wildcats close in even more games, whatever the score and stats that are amassed. If the Cats’ wins increase, then the numbers of yards or points or sacks become secondary. It could be in that area that the 2020 Kentucky defense truly excels.