The University of Kentucky has had great success with defensive coordinators as its head coach. Jerry Claiborne, Rich Brooks and Mark Stoops have all been the defensive boss before becoming head coach. All three men coached the Wildcats to varying levels of success, with one common theme: good, sometimes great, defenses. Even though last year’s defense was good, it failed to force turnovers like it had in previous seasons. I think that changes in 2022. Here are three reasons why Kentucky’s defense will be better than last year:
The defensive line is “stout”. Coach Mark Stoops has said the word ‘stout’ multiple times during fall camp when referring to this year’s defensive unit. That stoutness starts with the men on the defensive line. Many will lament the loss of Josh Paschal, who was drafted by the Detroit Lions back in April. However, Octavious Oxendine, “Big Ox” for short, will quickly put those lamentations to rest. Oxendine is a virtual copy of Pachal physically, both being approximately 6’2” and around 280 pounds. “Big Ox” also plays very similarly to Paschal, in that he can move around and play different positions. He will be a handful for opposing offenses, as he has transformed his body by losing weight and gaining speed in the process. The defensive end spot will be manned by Tre’vonn Rybka, a 6’4” and 275 pound sophomore. Rybka was rated 4-stars by Rivals out of high school and started the Citrus Bowl for the Wildcats. The nose tackle position will be manned again by Justin Rogers, who played a large number of snaps behind Marquan McCall, starting for McCall when he was injured against Florida. Rogers is a big nose tackle at 6’3” and 332 pounds. When he rushes the passer, the opposing offensive linemen will have to double him, opening holes for our inside linebackers.
The linebackers are elite. Rarely do you find a pair of “super seniors” starting for one defensive unit. Even more rare is when they share the middle of the linebacking corps. However, that is exactly what defensive coordinator Brad White has in Jacquez Jones and Deandre Square. Jones has started 31 games for Kentucky and led the team in tackles last year with 86. His goal line pass breakup on the last play of the Florida game sealed the win for the Wildcats. Square has 244 career tackles, as well as being named team captain twice. He has started 35 straight games for Kentucky. Jones and Square will be joined by more experienced personnel in Jordan Wright and J.J. Weaver. While Wright will likely miss the opener for the 2022 season, his contributions afterwards will be key. Another “super senior”, Wright plays the strong side linebacker position, a spot he has played for 42 games, with 12 starts. At the jack linebacker position, J.J. Weaver brings an athleticism that drives opposing coaches crazy. The junior has started seven games, with 73 career tackles and 6.5 sacks.
The secondary has improved…a LOT. Head Coach Mark Stoops was a defensive back at Iowa. He coached defensive backs before becoming a defensive coordinator. To call him experienced at working with defensive backs would be an understatement. His fingerprints are clearly on the progress we have seen in several of Kentucky’s defensive backs. The first place this is evident is the improvement in cornerback Carrington Valentine. The junior from Cincinnati Moeller has clearly made improvements to his game, according to several sources from fall camp. The cornerback position received an upgrade in experience with the addition of transfer Keidron Smith. The senior played in every game and started 29 games for Ole Miss. He is big at the cornerback position at 6’2” 204, so you can expect him to be physical and his length allows him to cover well. The safety spots are manned by two very experienced players in Tyrell Ajian and Jalen Geiger. Ajian played in all 13 games in 2021 and had 11 starts. The “super senior” had 46 tackles, nine pass breakups and one interception. Geiger has played in 22 games, with two starts to his credit. Geiger made several plays for Kentucky, including an interception return for touchdown against Vanderbilt. Jordan Lovett will likely play the nickel safety, having seen action last year, while taking his redshirt.
Do not let anyone fool you. This Kentucky Wildcats defensive unit will definitely be “stout”. They will also have more takeaways than last season. The ability to take the ball away was the biggest negative for the defense last season. Just imagine more turnovers, leading to Will Levis bombs down the field. Sounds great, doesn’t it?