Kentucky released its depth chart on Monday for the first week of the season. It contained a few surprises such as JUCO transfer offensive Tate Leavitt not being present, as well as some younger defensive linemen supplanting players that were previously believed to be ahead. There was another eye-catching reveal:
Surprise on depth chart: Kobie Walker at both SAM and nickel. Wonder if this suggests specific nickel sub-packages.— will marshall (@awillmarshall) August 29, 2016
The second string strong-side linebacker (SAM) was also listed as the second string nickel back - a role previously held by Kendall Randolph the last two seasons (Randolph is now listed as the second string free safety). My suspicions that Walker would be deployed in ways atypical to previous seasons may have later been confirmed by Stoops in his press conference:
Stoops: Kobie Walker will be out there and playing. Not going into detail where and how.— Freddie Maggard (@FredMaggard) August 29, 2016
Why the cloak and dagger unless UK intends to incorporate slightly different looks when Walker is in the game. Walker, a former high school safety, fits the mold of college defenses converting safeties to linebackers, linebackers to defensive ends, and defensive ends to defensive tackles for the sake of speed. NFL linebackers have also gotten smaller as their job description has changed. Maybe we shouldn't have been surprised by the release of the depth chart:
Kobie Walker has had a big training camp, Eliot said. Has cover ability of safety and power of linebacker, Eliot said.— Jen Smith (@jenheraldleader) August 10, 2016
Keeping Walker on the field in a nickel package does several things for the defense. Presumably he's diverse enough to handle underneath coverage in space versus tight ends and slot receivers, while also reliably taking up his run fit. Mark Stoops and DJ Elliot appeared to try and play strong safety Marcus McWilson closer to the line of scrimmage last season in a similar role, so perhaps Walker is the continuation of that sliver of the defensive playbook only with upgraded talent.
Make no mistake, Walker will be targeted by offensive staffs that see a 6'3'' 215 pound linebacker aligned against their skill positions. They'll engineer matching him up in man coverage against their fleetest receivers via formations or motions. UK may want to checkout of some coverages to mitigate damage.
Alternatively, UK has historically played quite a bit of Cover 3 pattern-matching under Mark Stoops. This would protect Walker. In this case, Walker could align over a speedy slot receiver, and when the receiver goes vertical (a theoretical mismatch for Walker), he would "switch" with the defensive back assigned to deep-routes and switch back to the shallow routes running underneath in the flats as the figure below shows.
Or maybe he doesn't need the protection as on one occasion in camp he ran step-for-step with one of UK's best receivers:
Stephen Johnson with the deep ball to Garrett Johnson, who hauls it in despite Kobie Walker being right there pic.twitter.com/GHdiPTlcsd— Ben Roberts (@BenRobertsHL) August 22, 2016
There's little even a true defensive back can do against a good throw and catch.
Blitzing off the edge or inside by the nickel back has been another staple of Stoops' and Elliot's defense since 2014. When a blitz is called with Walker on the field, they essentially get another outside linebacker on the field. That's an added power they didn't get last year blitzing McClain and Randolph off the edge, and would diversify the playbook a bit more. This would also imply UK's defensive line needs help rushing the passer for the second year in a row.
Denzil Ware on Kobie Walker: "It's like a five-second street fight when he's pass rushing." https://t.co/Tw83RBSUYm— Alex Forkner (@AlexForknerTCP) August 19, 2016
It's important not to make too big of a deal about this development. Blake McClain is still the starting nickel back, not to mention the fluidity of depth charts week-to-week, and will probably still see the majority of reps. It is the first time a linebacker, and not a safety, will see time at the nickel back position for UK suggesting new defensive wrinkles that may be needed to aid an anemic pass-rush. It also comes at an epoch when the nickel back is increasingly important.
If nothing else, Walker just became a more intriguing player to keep an eye on.