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Kentucky Football: Predicting The Defense's Depth Chart

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What started out as a prediction for the depth chart against UT-Martin turned into a larger preview of the defense.

Andy Lyons

The University of Kentucky football team has now passed the midway point of fall camp. Compared to most other years, there's been much more public access along with the usual media coverage. It feels like a good time to speculate on the depth chart. This post kind of got away from me, so I suppose it can also serve as a "Defense Preview Post" too. Keep in mind UK's base defense will be the 4-2-5 this season.

The following is based on a review of the transcripts from the Mark Stoops and DJ Elliot's post-practice press conferences, discussions with others, and some old fashioned thinking. Note: these are projections for Week One, and not intended to reflect the current make-up of the roster or later in the season.

 

Defensive Ends

1st String

Sr. "Bud" Dupree Sr. Za'Darius Smith
2nd String So. Jason Hatcher Jr. Farrington Huguenin
3rd String Jr. Jabari Johnson Fr. Lloyd Tubman

No surprise who the starters are at this position. Dupree has contributed for four seasons, and it will be his year. To be an effective counterpart, Smith must produce more in SEC play this season. It's not uncommon for JUCO's to need a year to adjust. Hopefully he surpasses his 6 sack total from last season by the middle of October.

Hatcher showed promise in his rare time last season, but Huguenin must improve his production this season. Fatigue, or worse an injury, to either starting defensive end could further cripple a weaker SEC defense. At 6'4'' 275 pounds, and two years in the program, Huguenin has the required measurables and experience. This season will be a very important one for him.

Denzil Ware was destined to redshirt from National Signing Day, and that will be a good thing for him as additional mass is needed. His measurables suggest he will play the hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end role similar to Dupree and Hatcher

Originally, I thought Tubman was a surefire redshirt. Then he reportedly gained 25 pounds since arriving on campus in June. I judge Tubman's presence will move Johnson to the other defensive end position if Tubman does not redshirt.

Output from this group will be needed. Tackles for loss and sacks can go a long way for a defense that will struggle against above average offenses. It will need 3rd and long situations to be successful.

 

Defensive Tackles
1st String RS Jr. Melvin Lewis Sr. Mike Douglas
2nd String Fr. Matt Elam RS Fr. Regie Meant
3rd String RS Fr. Jacob Hyde Jr. Cory Johnson

Players in the left column I judge will usually be aligned in the 0-2 techniques. Players on the right will usually be aligned in the 3 technique. I think Lewis and Douglas will be named the starters based on the spring game, and some of Elliot and Stoops' comments from fall camp.

I would have pegged Elam for a RS a few months ago, but it sounds like he'll play and probably more often that just situationally. Meant will also be in the thick of the rotation, but he has yet to play a snap in a college game. That's a lot of inexperience in the middle of the rotation.

JUCO transfer Johnson was behind his peers in the spring, so it's a good thing he was able to enroll early. It sounds like the game is starting to slow down for him, but he too has never played a snap in the SEC. Starters for spring game. Senior Christian Coleman and Hyde will also provide some depth. I hope this is the year Coleman produces, but it's tough to imagine the senior making a leap in his last year. I suspect Coleman will compete with Hyde for the third string slot.

Stoops has said freshman Adrian Middleton probably needs a redshirt, and presumably Tymere Dubose will too. I think this season Dubose is cross-trained at both defensive tackle and defensive end. After a RS year the coaches will decide on his final position.

The important point is many of these guys will play as the position gets platooned during games. There will be a lot of inexperience here though. It is nice, for a change, to having highly-rated newcomers, but they're still growing in their bodies and have yet to face 21-23 year-old SEC offensive linemen with refined technique, with years in the weight room and under a proper nutrition program. Their abilities to absorb blockers and control the line of scrimmage will be even more important with UK playing five defensive backs.

 

Linebackers
1st String Jr. Khalid Henderson Jr. Josh Forrest
2nd String Jr. Daron Blaylock Sr. TraVaughn Paschal
3rd String Jr. Ryan Flannigan Sr. Tyler Brause/Fr. Dorian Hendrix

Left column are the WILL linebackers, and the right column is the MIKE linebackers.

If you want to focus on roster mismanagement under the previous regime look no further than the linebackers. Among those listed you have a former safety, quarterback, defensive end, and wide receiver. The linebackers will probably be the defense's weak spot this year, but fans need to keep in mind these inherit issues. Stoops and Elliot have been dealt a poor hand, and will have to make due.

Henderson has started at WILL the last two seasons, and it was unlikely that JUCO transfer Flannigan was going to unseat him, especially after not arriving to campus until the beginning of August. Somewhat surprising is Stoops' comment that converted safety Blaylock was second behind Henderson. Blaylock's move to linebacker was necessary and hoped for in the last year.

Stoops has been impressed with Forrest at MIKE, and he will probably hold onto the spot. MIKE is likely the most natural position for Paschal, and it's unfortunate it took until his senior season to get him there. I look for him to have his most productive season since arriving in Lexington. By virtue of enrolling early Hendrix avoided a RS, and he will probably see time against UK's weaker opponents and on special teams.

Freshmen Kobie Walker and Nico Firios prob RS. Walker needs to put on weight, but both need time to adjust to the college schemes.

When the coaches move into a 4-3 or 3-4 alignment, they will have options. I suspect Paschal will be the SAM backer in most of those scenarios. Paschal can help in run support from that spot, but he is vulnerable to covering the tight end. If the coaches want, they could bring Blaylock or Flannigan in to play the SAM linebacker if they feel the offense is going to throw it. They are not ideal for stopping the run on the strong-side, but they would do a better job matching up with a tight end in passing situations than Paschal.

Secondary
1st String Jr. Cody Quinn Jr. Fred Tiller Sr. Ashely Lowery Jr. AJ Stamps So. Blake McClain
2nd String Sr. Nate Willis So. JD Harmon So. Marcus McWilson Jr. Glenn Faulkner Sr. Eric Dixon
3rd String So. Jaleel Hytchye Hytche/Randolph So. Blake McClain So. Zach Blaylock Fr. Kendall Randolph

Along with the defensive ends, this unit will be the strength of the defense. Having Dupree and Smith rushing the quarterback will help matters, but all four starters also return (five if you want to count the nickel back McClain). Importantly, there is also experienced depth behind the starters.

McClain was a pleasant surprise last fall, and his abilities likely played an important role in the base defense migrating to the 4-2-5. He's proven capable in coverage and in open field tackling. He'll be backed up by Dixon who is one of the hardest hitters on the team last season, if not always adept at coverage. It sounds like freshman Randolph has turned some heads in camp, and he may also see some playing time akin to previously mentioned Hendrix.

This will be the year for juniors Quinn and Tiller to showcase themselves. They have been steady but unexceptional the last two seasons. If they don't separate themselves this season playing time will be hard to come by when they are seniors. I suspect that Tiller is already in daily battles with Harmon for the starting position at the boundary corner. Willis is probably also challenging Quinn to a lesser extent at the field corner. Competition will be good for them all.

JUCO transfer Stamps is a major reason why this unit will be improved compared to last season. He enrolled early, participated in spring practice, and was arguably the best player on the field. His play forced a move of last year's starter (Dixon) to a new position. I'm more concerned about the play of Lowery and McWilson.

Final Thoughts

Stoops is always saying "recruit and develop". So far he and his staff have proven capable of the former, and we are on the cusp of learning if they are equally capable of the latter. This roster has holes in it that were caused by the previous regime. It's far from complete, but green shoots are starting to appear in places. According to F/+, the defense should be improved by virtue of returning 8 starters. Last season the defense allowed 31 points per game on average. This season I think that dips to 28 points per game.

The defense is a work in progress. Adjust expectations accordingly.