Kentucky’s rise from a perennial 5-7 squad to a pair of 10-win, Citrus-Bowl winning campaigns under Mark Stoops has been predicated on defense. Through the transition from Matt House to Brad White, Kentucky has continued to play bend-but-don’t-break well enough to land the Wildcats in the upper echelon of the SEC East.

It’ll be an interesting season for the defense in 2022, as UK will look to replace heavy losses on the line (all 3 starters) and secondary (2 starters and a pair of significant reserves gone). The Wildcats have succeeded over recent years by reloading with under-the-radar players developed within. Will the same recipe succeed in 2022?

Let’s take a deeper look at whether the 2022 defense will be better than the 2021 version that allowed just 21.7 points per game — 4th-fewest in the SEC.

Pressuring the QB: Better

After doing an excellent job in rushing the QB in 2018 (38 sacks, 3rd in SEC) and 2019 (33 sacks, 4th), the Wildcats fell off in the past 2 seasons (11th in 2020, tied for 9th in 2021 with 29 sacks). Moreover, 19 of UK’s 29 sacks last season came in 4 games — meaning the ‘Cats had just 10 sacks in the remaining 9 games.

Josh Paschal (2nd on the team with 5.5 sacks) is the big loss, but UK returns top pass rusher JJ Weaver and a host of linemen with more upside (Justin Rogers, Josiah Hayes, Octavious Oxendine) than some of the veterans they replace. Given the issues with the secondary, Kentucky almost has to do a better job rushing the passer in 2022 than they did last season.

Run defense: Worse

This is where Kentucky will miss some of those massive veteran defensive linemen. Kentucky allowed opponents just 122 yards rushing per game, 4th-best in the SEC. That was the best performance under Stoops, but massive (and now departed) interior linemen like 355-pound beast Marquan McCall and 300+ pound Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald were a key part of that process. Kentucky has plenty of talent on the line — look for former 5-star recruit Justin Rogers to plug in for McCall. Octavious Oxendine, at just 285 pounds, is more like Paschal than McCall — he’ll have the ability to get to quarterbacks and plug holes in the rushing game.

Much of the performance will depend on how well sophomores step up — program insiders raved about tackle Tre’vonn Rybka this spring. But until potential becomes productivity, it’s reasonable to expect at least a small step back here.

The good news is that the linebacker situation should be solid. With returnees DeAndre Square (looking to join UK’s 300-tackle club, which would make him just the 3rd member in the 21st century), Jacquez Jones (former Ole Miss starter and now a UK super senior) and Trevin Wallace (the best athlete of the group, and UK’s future at the position), the linebackers will do a good job cleaning things up … but then, they might need to do more in 2022 within the run game.

Pass defense: Better

This will take some explaining.

Kentucky was fairly poor here last season — 8th in the SEC in passing yards allow and 10th in opposing QB rating. The Wildcats allowed 20 passing touchdowns against just 9 interceptions, 1 above dead-last in the SEC in that category. The pass defense issues surfaced particularly in 2 games — Mississippi State’s Will Rogers and Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker combined to go 51-for-59 for 660 yards and 5 touchowns in their team’s win over UK. The Tennessee game was particularly ugly, as Kentucky’s offense rolled, but the defense could not stop the Vols.

Now, from that group, remove starting safety Yusuf Corker, starting corner Cedrick Dort, veteran nickel Davonte Robinson, and promising junior Vito Tisdale. Tisdale is out for the year with an injury, Dort transferred, and the other 2 graduated. The outlook doesn’t seem promising, does it?

On the other hand, it couldn’t get much worse than those 2 games last year. And there’s actually plenty of reason for optimism.

Senior safety Tyrell Ajian returns — a potential NFL performer, Ajian has to be more consistent and physical, but the skills are there. Junior Carrington Valentine was Kentucky’s most productive corner last year, and he’ll be back. Junior Jalen Geiger worked his way up the rotation during the 2022 season, and he showed signs of being an able contributor. The rest is a question.

But Stoops’ tenure at Kentucky has been marked by coaching up unknown defensive backs. From Chris Westry and Derrick Baity to the now-departed Dort and Quandre Mosely, Kentucky has thrown young DBs to the wolves and managed to find decent results. The guess here is that the subtraction of players from last season doesn’t become much of an issue, and that it might involve a lot of shuffling bodies, but Stoops coaxes a better performance out of his secondary than a year ago.

Special teams: Slightly better

Despite planned starter Wilson Berry struggling and getting hurt (he started just 2 games), Kentucky fared well in 2022. Punter Colin Goodfellow had the name of a Shakespearean character, but the punting stats of a star — UK finished 3rd in the SEC in punting average despite Berry’s early struggles. UK also held opponents to 50 punt return yards on the season, also 3rd-best in the SEC. Goodfellow entered the transfer portal but elected to return. With a full season of experience and the presumed starting spot this fall, there’s reason to think UK does even better.

Overall: Slightly worse

Kentucky allowed just 21.7 points per game last year, 4th in the SEC. Stoops’ troops managed to hold opponents under 20 points per game in 2018 and 2019, but this season seems to be trending the opposite direction. If that seems like bad news to Kentucky fans, they should remember that Stoops got Kentucky to bowls while allowing 31.3 points per game (2016) and 28.2 points per game (2017).

There’s no reason to think UK stumbles that much.

That said, allowing 24 or so points per game would have dropped UK to the middle of the SEC pack this year — and that feels like where this group might start next season. The good news is that the offense is not only competent but could even be explosive. Kentucky could have a minor slide in defense and still win 9 or 10 games.