Editor’s note: SDS’ annual preview of SEC East defenses continues with Kentucky. Coming Thursday: Missouri.

It’s been a quiet climb, but the Kentucky Wildcats have transformed into one of the toughest defensive units in the SEC. Last year’s all-SEC schedule wasn’t easy, but the UK defense was mostly up to the challenge. UK was among the conference leaders in turnovers forced (22) and finished 5th in the SEC in scoring defense and 4th in yardage allowed.

Admittedly, the Wildcats must replace 6 starters, but with an impressive crop of transfers and ever-improving depth, there’s no reason to think the defense will regress in 2021.

UK stands to lose the most talent in the secondary, where NFL draft picks Kelvin Joseph and Brandin Echols both leave big shoes to fill. First-round NFL pick Jamin Davis and solid edge backer Boogie Watson are also on to greener pastures, and up front, the Wildcats lost solid starters Phil Hoskins and Quinton Bohanna — both of whom also were chosen in the NFL Draft. It’s telling that 5 or 6 Kentucky starters who will be replaced were NFL selections. What might surprise others is that the cabinet is hardly bare behind them. Where can UK improve? Let’s break it down.

Pressuring the QB: Better

Despite all of the things UK did well in 2020, rushing the passer was not one of them. The Wildcats finished with just 15 sacks, near the bottom of the SEC standings. Half (7.5) were from players who won’t be back this year, including 5 from Watson, their most consistent pass rusher.

But considering the production UK has garnered from both known stars like Josh Allen and relative unknowns like Calvin Taylor, there’s a good chance UK will fare better in this area in 2021. Outside linebacker Jordan Wright is the top returning pass rusher, with 3.5 sacks last year. But interior players like Josh Paschal and Justin Rogers could blow up next season. Paschal in particular seems like a player with all the tools for stardom. At 6-3 and 275 pounds, he’s explosive enough to rush off the edge and stout enough to stuff the middle. Outside linebacker J.J. Weaver is another player who could explode. He was showing signs of breaking through when an injury ended his 2020 season prematurely, but the 6-5, 230-pounder from Louisville had 6.5 tackles for loss before going down for the year.

Kentucky is likely to at least get back to 20-25 QB sacks next season, and a move up to 30 or so would be more in keeping with recent history. Who will be the next explosive talent in pass rushing? If history is to be believed, it’s definitely a question of who and not whether.

Pass defense: Worse

On the other hand, Kentucky will be hard-pressed to do play better against passing games. UK was 3rd in the SEC in pass defense efficiency and led the conference with 16 interceptions. That said, the players who had 10 of those interceptions won’t be back. Joseph was an outstanding cover corner in his only year as a Wildcat, and he had 4 of those interceptions. Linebacker Davis had 3 more — with both Davis and Joseph having pick-6s in the win over Tennessee.

The good news is that Kentucky only loses 2 players on the back end and will return Tyrell Aijan and Yusuf Corker. Corker was the team’s leading tackler last season and both are experienced veteran components in the secondary. Freshman Vito Tisdale showed a hard-hitting intensity as a reserve, and he’ll figure in either at a corner spot, as a nickel or as a safety with one of the returning starters shifting to nickel. He’s just too good to sit. Rare 6th-year senior Davonte Robinson will also contribute. UK is in position to be strong again, but does have to replace a pair of NFL-bound cover corners. The parts are all in place, but it’ll be hard to fare as well as the Wildcats did in 2020.

Run defense: Better

UK was adequate against the run in 2020, finishing 6th in the SEC in rushing yardage allowed. And with Davis and a couple of big guys up front gone, there are some positions to fill. The transfer portal has helped. UK grabbed LB Jacquez Jones, who led Ole Miss in tackles last season. Former Michigan State backer Luke Fulton and ex-Georgia Tech recruit Justice Dingle could also help out right away. Freshman linebacker Trevin Wallace should see the field as well.

The return of DeAndre Square was huge. Square was 2nd on the team in tackles last year, and he could easily have headed to the NFL.

An emerging player to watch is sophomore Jared Casey. UK snagged him away from Oregon as a recruit, and Casey had 20 tackles last year as a reserve. He could be the next Jamin Davis-type who leaves the SEC going from “Who’s that?” to “Uh-oh.”

Kentucky wasn’t awful against the run in 2020, but given the young talent the team returns (and the pivotal return of Square), the Wildcats will hope for a slight move forward in this area in 2021. It could be pivotal to UK’s chances of moving toward the higher end of the East pecking order.

Special teams: Worse

Max Duffy was a legend. The Aussie star and defending Ray Guy winner had a ho-hum 2020, averaging *just* 45.1 yards per punt. Fellow Aussie Wilson Berry will assume the job, but it’s a lot to assume that Berry can be as good as Duffy from Day 1.

Meanwhile, kickoff coverage was solid and should stay the same. Chance Poore obtained touchbacks on 27 of his 50 kickoffs, and UK was competent on coverage. Poore will return, so there’s no reason to expect any change there.

Overall, special teams have been a strength for UK, but having to replace one of the best punters in school history may not be easy.

Overall: Better

When Mark Stoops was hired after the 2012 season, with a 2-10 season behind him and a 2-10 season upcoming, it would be unfathomable to be in a world where UK would finish in the top 3rd of the SEC in most defensive categories, would send 5 defensive starters to the NFL Draft, and could hope to be even better the next season.

But that’s where we are.

Kentucky might not have quite as many impact players among their starting 11 in 2021 as it did in 2020. But each year, the second 11 (and the third 11) have grown increasingly more talented and capable. In a league of attrition, that will matter, particularly in the back half of the schedule.

Frankly, UK’s defense doesn’t have a ton of room to improve, but on a team with a solid core of returning veterans and some significant newcomers, improvement is definitely possible. Maybe even likely.