Why this could (and should) be Kentucky's best defense of the Mark Stoops era
Last year, I adopted a new policy with Mark Stoops.
It sort of goes against what we’re taught to do during this 8-month offseason. It’s not something that you’ll see happen in preseason magazines, and even the oddsmakers aren’t likely to adopt this sort of logic.
I’m not going to get caught up in how many household names Kentucky returns on defense — I’m just gonna trust Stoops to figure it out.
You see, I adopted this policy because last year, Kentucky was ranked No. 127 in college football in percentage of returning defensive production. That’s out of 130 teams (that was calculated before the Cats lost veteran defensive back Davonte Robinson to a season-ending injury prior to the start of fall camp). It fed into this belief that Kentucky was about to fall off the face of the earth following its best season in 4 decades. Replacing the likes of All-American Josh Allen, cornerback Lonnie Johnson and safety Mike Edwards was supposed to be too much at a place like Kentucky.
Then the more I listened to Stoops talk throughout the offseason, the more I realized the guy had a point. His mantra was, well, the experts weren’t talking about guys like Allen and Johnson being irreplaceable before the 2018 season, so why would that mean 2019 would play out any differently?
And as Stoops often is these days, he was right. Kentucky had the No. 14 defense in America — it was only 2.5 points per game worse than the historic 2018 group — despite the aforementioned year-to-year loss in personnel. That group fueled an 8-win season that looked hopeless after the first month. How? Stoops figured it out.
That’s why as we sit here and break down Kentucky’s defense heading into 2020, I’m going to fall back on that belief. He’ll figure it out.
Actually, he already showed that he figured it out with an extremely similar group. Consider that a worthy reason this should be Kentucky’s best defense yet under Stoops.
Granted, that’s not saying anyone will emerge in the way that Allen did (but don’t sleep on Jamar Watson or Joshua Paschal becoming those guys), or that it’ll guarantee that Kentucky wins 10 games again.
Still, the same percentage of returning production stat that worked against Kentucky entering 2019 should absolutely be in Stoops’ favor heading into 2020. Here are the nation’s top 15 defenses from 2019 and where they rank in percentage of returning defensive production:
- Georgia — No. 21
- San Diego State — No. 77
- Clemson — No. 104
- Ohio State — No. 114
- Iowa — No. 91
- Utah — No. 130
- Florida — No. 55
- Penn State — No. 66
- Oregon — No. 18
- Wisconsin — No. 17
- Wyoming — No. 98
- Notre Dame — No. 102
- Alabama — No. 75
- Kentucky — No. 27
- Mizzou — No. 62
Eleven of those 15 defenses don’t even rank among the top 50 in that category for 2020. Kentucky, however, is on the right side of that stat. That’s not even accounting for the promising former LSU transfer Kelvin Joseph, who sat the 2019 season because of NCAA transfer rules.
With that in mind, why wouldn’t this be the best Kentucky defense under Stoops?
Stoops pulled off his midseason 2019 turnaround with a new defensive coordinator in Brad White, who is back in 2020. Kentucky did lose a pair of defensive assistants. Defensive line coach Derrick LeBlanc took a job on Sam Pittman’s staff at Arkansas and special teams coordinator/secondary coach Dean Hood left to take the head gig at Murray State. That means defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale is the only defensive assistant from the historic 2018 squad who is still on Stoops’ staff.
But retaining the likes of Clinkscale and Vince Marrow were key offseason moves for the recruiting foundation they built. Kentucky just signed its first top-25 class since 2014, which was the result of landing 4 4-star recruits on the defensive side of the ball. Talent evaluation and development is at the core of why Kentucky completed its best 4-year stretch since the 1950s.
Clinkscale helped develop guys like Cedrick Dort and Brandin Echols, who emerged as lockdown corners for a Kentucky passing defense that finished No. 2 in the country despite the aforementioned lack of experience the secondary had heading into 2019. Both guys, along with the debut of Joseph, should give Kentucky plenty of cover options to repeat as one of the nation’s top pass defenses. The depth on the back end is there, as well, with the return of safeties Yusuf Corker (Kentucky’s leading tackler) and Quandre Mosley (Pro Football Focus has him as a breakout star for 2020).
Is it crazy to think Kentucky will have an even better pass defense than each of the past 2 years? Not at all. In fact, here’s what the 2020 group is battling against (FBS rankings listed):
The biggest blemish on Kentucky’s defensive résumé the past 2 years is the run defense. By Stoops’ standards, it’s been the weak link. That shouldn’t be the case in 2020.
While the Cats will have to find a replacement for vocal leader Kash Daniel in the middle of the defense and the ever-versatile Calvin Taylor Jr., the front 7 is still stockpiled with proven veterans. Returning the likes of Paschal, Watson and DeAndre Square will give Kentucky plenty of potential All-SEC candidates at linebacker, and senior Quinton Bohanna has the makings of becoming one of the top interior defensive linemen in the SEC after 19 consecutive starts.
Without knowing the status of junior linebacker Chris Oats, who was reportedly moved to a rehab facility with an undisclosed medical issue last month, Stoops still has established depth and experience unlike any defense he’s had in Lexington.
Allowing 16.8 points per game is no small feat in this pass-heavy era of college football. That’s the 2018 mark that this 2020 group is chasing. Allowing just 167.8 passing yards per contest is also no small feat in this pass-heavy era of college football. That’s the 2019 mark that this 2020 group is chasing.
Maybe Kentucky won’t hit either mark, and maybe this won’t end up being a year like what we saw in 2018. After all, Stoops seems to be at his best when people are doubting him. It seems like fewer and fewer people in the college football world are doing that these days.
It certainly begs the question — what’ll happen if Kentucky ends up with its first preseason AP Top 25 ranking since 1978?
Stoops will figure it out.