The University of Kentucky's defense struggled on the football field in 2014. In terms of total defense it was ranked 11th in the SEC which is only two rungs higher on the ladder than the previous season. Visions of a quick defensive turnaround under Mark Stoops and defensive coordinator DJ Elliot did not come to fruition. Two years in and the defensive improvement is noticeable in some aspects though hardly laudatory. Forcing 23 turnovers last season was terrific, but Mark Stoops would probably elect to bite into a cyanide molar before having another below average to poor defense.
- 2013: Allowed 31.2 points per game; 6.26 yards per play; F/+ -12% and ranked 109th.
- 2014: Allowed 31.3 points per game; 5.50 yards per play; F/+ -2.5% and ranked 77th.
Frustratingly, the defense was returned eight starters. The biggest problem yet again was UK's inability to stop the run, giving up 190 yards rushing per game. It was a rare feat to put teams in 2nd and 3rd and long situations. Unless UK got teams in obvious passing downs its above average pass rush was rendered moot. The secondary showed improvement but the margin for error against SEC skill players is so thin that getting exposed was inevitable. Not being able to consistently stop the run compounded giving up those big plays.
This year the defense again returns eight starters many of whom have two years worth of starts. Once again, UK returns quite a bit of experience, but the question is will this be the year despite losing Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith?
Last season UK primarily ran three man fronts after playing mostly four man fronts in 2013. The type of personnel UK is recruiting lends me to believe the 3-4 base defense is here to stay, but Stoops has made it clear since he was hired that he wants to give offenses multiple looks. Nonetheless, he has two quality nose tackles and is developing the bodies required for two-gap defensive tackles and ends (I've grouped Jason Hatcher, Jabari Johnson, and Denzil Ware with the defensive linemen given their dual roles but they could just as easily be with the linebackers).
UK is increasing its depth along the defensive line despite the loss of three senior defensive linemen last year; however, it must be pointed out the depth is largely supplied by underclassmen who are still developing the strength necessary to engage in SEC trench warfare. Just like the offensive line unit, the defensive line has depth but it won't necessarily be good depth until 2016 and beyond as technique and physical maturation build further.
Let's start with the nose tackles because UK has two good ones. Melvin Lewis started last season and had himself a great season. He seemed to really benefit from his redshirt season after transferring from the JUCO ranks. Lewis' back-up was the one, the only, Matt Elam. The true freshman saw a lot of game action last season, and his improvement in pad level alone was noticeable as the season progressed. I expect both players, probably backed by Jacob Hyde, to be even better this season after another season in the weight room pushing each other. Any successful 3-4 must have a great nose tackle to soak up interior blockers, and UK's defense definitely has that piece of the puzzle.
Farrington Huguenin primarily backed up Smith last season, but showed flashes in relief that were promising. In fact, his improved play reminded me of Mike Douglas the year before when he would sub in for Donte Rumph. He will likely be the starting defensive end this season. He's listed at 6'4 275 pounds last season which is a great frame for a defensive end, and is 15 more pounds than he weighed in the 2013 season. If he continues to improve his body in the weight room, and refines technique, he may make waves this year.
Overall, there is some but not a lot of depth at the defensive end position. Farrington will probably be backed up by young RS freshmen like Adrian Middleton or Tymere Dubose. If Lloyd Tubman re-enrolls at UK that would probably also be his position, though, he has probably fallen behind his teammates to the point that his contributions this season may be limited. JUCO signee Courtney Miggins is also playing defensive end this fall, but he won't arrive on campus until late June. He'll have an opportunity for immediate playing time this fall.
The defensive tackle position also has depth. Regie Meant and Cory Johnson both saw a lot of playing time backing up Mike Douglas. Johnson was on the field more in obvious passing downs which may suggest how the staff feels about his pass-rushing skills. The starting battle between these two will be a close one that likely goes into fall camp. They might be backed up by a cross-training Jacob Hyde, but certainly one of the RS freshmen, like Adrian Middleton, who may be also cross-training for the last time this spring.
The outside linebackers, and perhaps the defense, is led by Jason Hatcher. He was Mark Stoops first big-time recruit and the highest rated recruit UK signed out of Louisville since Corey Peters in 2006. He's showed steady improvement from his freshman to sophomore seasons, but his responsibilities and expectations will grow exponentially this season. He wins more than his share of battles when being blocked by running backs or tight ends, but this season he'll have to start beating offensive linemen on blocks, and regularly make tackles in space against skill positions.
Depth at outside linebacker would be concerning except, like Huguenin, Jabari Johnson took a huge step forward last season backing up Jason Hatcher. He's huge for an outside linebacker, and running the ball against him on the weakside last season was no easy feat. He didn't have the skills to be a reliable pass-rusher, and that may be where Denzil Ware brings value this season. Additionally, JUCO signee Alvonte Bell will be on the roster this fall, but like Miggins, may be hampered by his late arrival. Fellow RS freshman Kobie Walker is listed with the inside linebackers below, but it'll be interesting to see where he sees reps in spring ball because his measurables project to inside or outside linebacker.
The linebacking corps returns everyone, including leading tackler Josh Forrest. The converted receiver had an incredible season registering 110 tackles, and the next closest UK player had 74 tackles. Not only does Forrest return, but two year starter Khalid Henderson does as well. Henderson himself has shown steady improvement, and in hindsight was done a disservice by the previous staff in not redshirting him. Henderson will compete for time with Ryan Flannigan who was playing well by the end of last season. He would have also benefited with a redshirt season, but Stoops and Elliot had no choice given linebacker depth.
Nebraska transfer Courtney Love could have an impact if the NCAA grants him a waiver allowing him to play immediately. In 12 games last season he only tallied 6 tackles, but the scuttlebutt during his transfer was that he'd see ample playing time for the Cornhuskers this fall. I judge he'll eventually be assigned Forrest's back-up.
Daron Blaylock, Nico Firios, and Dorian Hendrix (maybe Kobie Walker too) will all provide depth in case of injury. I'm hard-pressed to imagine either of those three usurping UK's first four inside linebackers. Isn't it nice to have some depth at linebacker for the first time in several seasons?
Depth at safety may be an issue this season. The graduation of Eric Dixon and Ashely Lowery, as well as the early graduation of Glenn Faulkner has left UK with only two upper classmen safeties in AJ Stamps and Marcus McWilson. Now, those two started the last few games but behind them are underclassmen (I've not included Mike Edwards in this group, because I've yet to see the media report he's enrolled this spring. Even so, he'll still only be a true freshman next season and hopefully isn't needed. If he is, UK is having issues.).
Due to this reality, I expect Blake McClain to transition to split his time between nickel back and safety this season. After last spring he was listed as a safety, so this won't be a position that he hasn't cross-trained at before. His primary back-up at nickel last season, Kendall Randolph, played very well as a true freshman last season, and is probably ready to take on an increased role.
There is no bigger punching bag on UK message boards than cornerbacks Fred Tiller and Cody Quinn. I don't share the sentiment. These two guys have come a long way since they were thrown into an impossible position as true freshmen at Florida in 2012. They've continually gotten better and Tiller is turning into a pretty good boundary corner. His 46 tackles last season were second in the secondary to only AJ Stamps 56 tackles. He regularly drew the other teams best receivers, and on UK's schedule that included future NFL players: Devante Parker, Travin Dural, Chris Conley, Pharoh Cooper, and De'Runnya Wilson to name but a few. The dude rarely got a break!
In short, I don't see Tiller or Quinn losing their starting jobs despite what some message board posters see as inevitable. JD Harmon backed up Tiller last season and he's also developing into a fine back-up boundary corner. I suspect Mark Stoops first ever commit, Jaleel Hytche, will back-up Quinn with Nate Willis' graduation, but Randolph may see some action there.
Position battles I'll be paying attention to are nose tackle, defensive tackle, outside linebacker, WILL linebacker, and maybe boundary corner where Harmon and Tiller is a fairly even match-up.