Kentucky football: No superstar? No problem for UK's thriving defense
Most of the great Kentucky football teams had big-name defenders who will forever be identified with the program.
In 1977, it was Art Still, a massive defensive end who was chosen second in the following year’s NFL draft.
In 2018, it was Josh Allen, who won the Nagurski Award on his way to going 7th in the next year’s draft.
In 2022 … well, it might not be the case.
This isn’t to say that Kentucky’s 2022 defense lacks for talent or for future pros. It’s just to say that there’s not one player who is the big-name superstar of the UK defense. There might be several players who can fit the bill.
And after the Wildcats moved up to No. 8 in the new AP poll on Sunday after a 31-0 win over Youngstown State on Saturday — the program’s first shutout since 2009 — that might be just fine. From many stars emerge a different standout — or a few standouts — every week.
In Week 1 against Miami of Ohio, it might have been super senior DeAndre Square, who led the team in tackles with 7. Or maybe it was junior edge rusher J.J. Weaver, who had 5 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a blocked kick.
In Week 2 at The Swamp, it might have been senior Jordan Wright, whose 6 tackles, pair of tackles for loss, 1 sack, a forced fumble and an interception returned inside the Florida 10 made him SEC Defensive Player of the Week. That’s not to overlook Ole Miss transfer Keidron Smith, who undercut a route and returned a 65-yard pick-6 to give UK a third-quarter lead that the Wildcats held for the rest of the game.
In the Week 3 shutout against Youngstown State, the star might have been true freshman defensive back Alex Afari, who led the team in tackles with 5, including a tackle for loss. Or corner Carrington Valentine, who had an interception in the end zone to preserve the shutout and broke up another deep pass into the Kentucky end zone.
But regardless of who the star of the defense is — or even if there is a singular standout on that side of the ball — Kentucky’s results have been superb. After 3 weeks, UK is allowing just under 10 points per game (5th-best in the SEC) and 254 yards per game (3rd-best in the SEC). Kentucky’s pass defense has been the best so far in the SEC, as the Wildcats have forced opposing passers to complete under 50 percent of their throws. Kentucky has given up 0 touchdown passes while grabbing 3 interceptions.
UK has allowed just 26 plays of 10-plus yards in 3 games — 2nd in the SEC, behind Alabama — and leads the SEC in opposing third-down conversion rate. Kentucky’s defense has allowed opponents to convert just 7 of 40 3rd-down attempts this season. That 17.5 percent success rate is the 4th-best in the entire FBS.
Undoubtedly, some of Kentucky’s success — and its many standouts over a superstar approach — lies with the program’s superior development work. Just as Allen was once a 2-star recruit the Wildcats snagged from Monmouth, the Wildcats defense is largely the result of developing some talented young prospects into SEC standouts.
Among UK’s featured defenders are super seniors Square, Wright, safety Tyrell Aijan, and Ole Miss transfers Jacquez Jones and Smith. But Kentucky’s best recruiting class in the modern era is also providing instant benefits. Whether it’s Afari, true freshman defensive line standout Deone Walker, who made his first start against Youngstown, or fellow true frosh linebacker Keaten Wade, Kentucky is supplementing experienced veterans with talented youngsters who are learning on the job.
Mark Stoops might be allergic to blowing up his own team with praise. The head coach of the Wildcats seems to prefer the constant stream of disrespect to what Alabama head coach Nick Saban termed “rat poison.” But even Stoops had to admit that he’s happy with where UK’s defense stands.
“The nice thing is, you get better as the year goes on,” Stoops said of his defense. “A week ago (at Florida), I felt like we really did some good things at times and took them out of their comfort zone in certain situations. And the same (on Saturday).”
Older guys, younger guys, veterans, new Wildcats — Kentucky will use them all. And if there’s not one player who reigns as the guaranteed defensive superstar in residence, the Wildcats are OK with that.
If nobody is a superstar, maybe everybody is a superstar.