With Kentucky football, the defense has work to do, too.
UK’s offseason has been all about the offense. Liam Coen’s offense. He’s the new guy with the new scheme. Head coach Mark Stoops hired the former Los Angeles Rams assistant coach to introduce the Cats to the concept of the forward pass. Spring drills drilled down on teaching, installs, wide zones, bootlegs, snaps under center, and creating balance in UK’s recent run-heavy attack.
With fall practice starting this weekend, however, let’s not forget the Kentucky defense. Stoops’ bread and butter. It’s his background, his love, his calling card. In Brad White, Stoops has an all-star aide entering his third year as the Wildcats’ defensive coordinator.
As to be expected when playing an all-SEC schedule, UK’s defensive numbers slipped in 2020. Points per game allowed rose from 19.3 to 25.9; yards per game allowed jumped from 325 to 381. Opponents completed 66 percent of their passes. Disclaimer: The 63-3 loss at eventual national champ Alabama on Nov. 21 skewed those numbers. UK’s struggling offense didn’t help, either.
“We’re never going to stray from what we do,” White told the crowd at last week’s Kickoff Luncheon. “But we have to adapt.”
Part of that is scheme. Football is always changing, evolving, morphing into something new that both sides of the ball must deal with on an impromptu basis. The Cats have had success with the 3-4 scheme in recent years, but there are always substitution packages sprinkled into the mix. It’s a game of matchups.
There is a player component, too, of course. Just five starters return from 2020. Gone are five defensive players taken in April’s NFL Draft. Linebacker Jamin Davis went No. 19 overall to the Washington Football Team. Dallas drafted cornerback Kelvin Joseph in the second round; defensive tackle Quinton Bohanna in the sixth. The New York Jets picked cornerback Brandin Echols in the sixth. Carolina tabbed Phil Hoskins in the seventh.
The last time the NFL selected five UK defensive players in the same draft? That would be 1979 — Jim Ramey (third round), Jim Kovach (fourth), Kelly Kirchbaum (fifth), Bob Winkel (seventh) and David Stephens (12th). The draft lasted 12 rounds then. It was reduced to seven in 1994.
There are viable replacements. Marquan McCall should slide into Bohanna’s old spot. Candidates from UK’s heralded 2020 defensive line class will vie for Hoskins’ position. There is significant buzz around sophomore cornerback Carrington Valentine. Senior Jacquez Jones could team with DeAndre Square at linebacker. Jones was the leading tackler on a miserable Ole Miss defense last season before transferring to UK this summer.
Though undrafted, outside linebacker Boogie Watson won’t be easy to replace. He tied for fourth in the SEC last year in tackles for loss with 10. Sophomore J.J. Weaver has star potential — 6.5 tackles for loss in 2020 — but is coming off a torn ACL. And Kentucky was dead last in the conference in 2020 in sacks with 14. Watson was responsible for five of those. An improved pass rush has been identified as a goal.
Experience counts. Josh Paschal returns at defensive end; Jordan Wright at outside linebacker. Yusuf Corker is ready for a breakout year at safety. Davonte Robinson, Tyrell Ajian and Cedric Dort are all veterans on the back end.
“It was a great spring for us,” said White, adding that going up against Coen’s new offense yanked his players out of their comfort level. That’s a good thing. It might be especially beneficial considering much of Kentucky’s 2021 SEC schedule promises to be a schematic mystery.
Three league opponents have new head coaches — Shane Beamer at South Carolina; Josh Heupel at Tennessee and Clark Lea at Vanderbilt. LSU has a new offensive coordinator. Heupel is a former college quarterback whose offense put up big numbers at UCF before coming to Knoxville. Expect the unexpected.
What’s expected of UK football in 2021? No doubt Coen and the winner of Kentucky’s fall camp quarterback competition will play a huge role. But don’t forget the defense. It has a to-do list, too.