In the dog eat dog world of SEC football, having a rock-solid defense goes a long way in separating the contenders from the pretenders.
Last season, Kentucky's defense struggled, mightily at times. The unit gave up a total of 434 yards per game, including a 228 yard average on the ground in a conference full of running backs who will eventually play on Sunday.
However, last season's unit was young and started 13 different players at various points. Nine starters return for the Wildcats in 2017.
The defense also has a new coordinator in Matt House, who managed special teams and inside linebackers last fall. House took to the podium earlier today to discuss what to expect from his players a little over a month before the season opener against Southern Miss.
It All Starts Up Front
For Kentucky to improve on its porous run defense from 2017, the line has to play lights out, which it did not do against Georgia Tech in the TaxSlayer Bowl. The Yellow Jackets pounded Kentucky for 226 yards in December.
Coach House said he thought it was a wake-up call for the lineman.
"Yeah, Georgia Tech with an H in their offense they probably exposed us a little bit more but I think through out if you look at the whole season, that’s just an area we need to improve at.”
The key, House said, is to improve play on first and second downs. He wants the D-line to "create more negative yardage plays."
However, House sounded confident about the unit's development.
"I do think they have improved through the spring and the summer," he said.
House credited some of that improvement to line coach Derrick LeBlanc.
"I thought Derrick LeBlanc did a good job with them and you know Derrick’s a great technician and you know I think they have improved on that. To be honest with you, he puts his foot up the rear when he needs it, and as a group, I look for them to continue to improve throughout training camp and make leaps forward.”
Linebacker Play Will Be Strong
Before the first snap of fall camp, Coach House confirmed preseason speculation that Kentucky is deep in the middle of the field.
“I’d say right now you got a solid two deep at both spots with a potential of a guy or two more playing," he said.
Of course, all discussion about the position group starts with weak side linebacker Jordan Jones. The junior is the SEC's returning leading tackler.
"The reality is Jordan had a great year, but he’s a second-year starter in the SEC. So there should be a big jump from a first-year starter to a second-year starter."
There is still much that Jones can improve on. House said that the All-SEC player needs to improve his discipline and physicality on the field.
Jones motor is not an issue. House even said that Jones is the kind of player the coaches have to tell "Woah" instead of "sick em'."
A bevy of talented youngsters is competing for playing time, including Paintsville native Kash Daniel.
After seeing the field a lot as a freshman, House said that Daniel is "moving around better" going into his sophomore season and fans should expect him to take the next step in his development.
The Secondary Will Be A Strength Too
Kentucky finished in the top half of the SEC in pass defense last season and looks to continue the trend with a tremendously talented group of corners and safeties.
A boon for the secondary is the return of junior safety Darius West, who is expected to replace Marcus McWilson.
On what West brings to the table, Coach House had this to say: “Well Darius, first and foremost he brings a physical presence. He’s a guy that likes to mix it up which is big, and believe it or not, in straight-line speed he’s one of our faster guys and so just the depth and the physicality, all those things I look for him to kind of open up a little bit."
Coach House said to expect to see junior safety Mike Edwards at the nickel position this season and explained why.
"The thing about him is he’s really instinctive. At that nickel position, you’ve got to have some instincts. You got to have some short area quickness. It’s a little different than playing the other four spots because you’re closer to the ball. Things happen faster."
House predicted that corners Chris Westry and Derrick Baity will "answer the bell" after being pushed around a little bit last season.
Sophomore Jordan Griffin and true freshman Davonte Allen, a Lexington native, will provide a spark from the sideline as well according to House.