Why Kentucky Will Finally Win the East in 2020: An In-Depth Study
Read the following sentence out loud – “Kentucky has a great football team”.
There, that wasn’t so hard was it? I don’t understand why so many people in the college football world (SEC fans specifically) have such a difficult time admitting that simple truth. Kentucky has a damn good football team this season. Besides Alabama and Georgia, realistically there isn’t a team in the SEC they aren’t better than – and even those two SEC powerhouses are very winnable games for the Cats this season. Many simple-minded fans and experts refuse to give UK the respect they deserve, because it’s “Kentucky Football”. That reasoning might have been enough to dismiss the Cats in the past, but not this year. Not this team. I mean, there really are people out there who will be surprised when Kentucky whips Auburn up and down the field for the full sixty-minutes week one. Kentucky is legit and the SEC better wake up before it's too late when the season starts on September 26th.
Now, I’m sure you’re asking yourself WHY is Kentucky’s name even being mentioned as a contender for the SEC? In 2019, the Cats finished the season 8-5 overall, but posted a mediocre 3-5 conference record – with their only SEC wins coming against Missouri, Vanderbilt, and Arkansas. Not to mention that Benny Snell, Josh Allen, and Lynn Bowden are all long-gone. So, why do people such as SEC Network Football Analyst Cole Cubelic have high expectations for Kentucky this year? Why do they expect UK to do better this season against a grueling 10-game SEC schedule that contains away trips to Auburn, Alabama, Florida, and Tennessee? Cubelic received backlash earlier this summer for where he listed Kentucky in his pre-season SEC power rankings:
6. Texas A&M
9. Mississippi St
10. Ole Miss
11. South Carolina
Cubelic’s expectations for Kentucky made him a social media laughing-stock that day, particularly among the overly-sensitive fans from Tennessee, Auburn, and Texas A&M, who used Kentucky’s average performance in the SEC last year as justification for their displeasure. That’s fair, but let’s talk about Kentucky’s team last year, and why their record of 8-5 didn’t accurately reflect the caliber of this group. Remember, starting QB Terry Wilson – who’d just led UK to their first 10-win season in over forty years the season prior – suffered a season-ending injury early in the third quarter of the Cats’ second game of the season last year. He was then replaced by newly-acquired Troy transfer Sawyer Smith, who started and played QB in UK’s next three games against Florida, Mississippi State, and South Carolina while battling a severe shoulder injury on his throwing-arm. Eventually, Sawyer’s injuries would become too detrimental to his performance, causing UK’s coaching staff to make yet another change at QB, replacing their depleted backup with wide receiver Lynn Bowden – who would lead the Wildcats’ to a 6-2 record in their remaining eight games, while running the most one-dimensional offense in the history of modern football.
Despite the loss of Terry, and the chaotic mess Kentucky suffered at the QB position last year, the Cats were still just a missed 30-yard field goal (with less than one-minute remaining) away from beating Florida, and an unsuccessful fourth down goal-line stand away from beating Tennessee. If those two (VERY) simple miscues bounce UK’s way, then they finish last year with 10 wins – again.
But enough of the hypotheticals. That’s not what this research study is about. The objective here is to show you everything Kentucky accomplished last year (from individuals to group units), identify exactly who and what they’re returning, compare that with the rest of the SEC, and ultimately prove why this Kentucky team can (and will) finally win the SEC East – with undeniable stats and facts serving as supporting evidence. Consider this the most in-depth statistical breakdown of Kentucky for 2020. The majority of stats and facts will come from Pro Football Focus (PFF), the most highly-respected and reliable football analytics outlet in the world. For those of you unfamiliar with PFF, here is an excerpt from their website, “PFF focuses on thorough analysis of the National Football League (NFL) and NCAA Division-I football in the United States. PFF produces 0-100 Player Grades and a range of advanced statistics for teams and players by watching, charting and grading every player on every play in every game both at the NFL and FBS level”. PFF analyses are being used by every NFL organization and the majority of college football programs. Football is a very complex sport with various positions in which measuring production and potential can be very difficult. PFF has brought clarity to many aspects of the sport through their analyses, and their statistics have proven to be a successful tool for measuring players and groups that go far beyond what the box score tells you. If a player or team is consistently at the top of PFF’s statistical rankings, chances are they’re a high-level talent – which is great for Kentucky this upcoming season. There’s an old saying that goes, “Men lie, women lie, numbers don’t lie”. By the end of this report I guarantee that Kentucky fans will share an increased optimism for 2020, while the rest of the SEC will share a collective fear of Mark Stoops’ and his Kentucky squad this upcoming season.
Let’s get started by checking out this statistic that was recently published by SB Nation Analytics Director and College Sports Editor, Bill Connelly:
1. Georgia Tech (89%)
2. Houston (87%)
3. UAB (83%)
4. Kentucky (80%)
5. Louisville (80%)
6. Oklahoma State (79%)
7. Rice (77%)
8. Virginia Tech (77%)
9. Texas A&M (77%)
10. ECU (77%)
In terms of returning on-field production from last season, Kentucky ranks first in the SEC, second in Power-5, and fourth out of all 130 FBS teams. That’s an incredible advantage for Stoops and company considering no other SEC teams even cracked the top ten. However, it doesn’t matter how many players you return if they didn’t compete and produce at an elite level. Here, PFF puts the “quality” of on-field production Kentucky returns this season in perspective:
1. Georgia (21)
2. Kentucky (15)
2. Alabama (15)
4. Florida (11)
5. Auburn (8)
6. LSU (7)
Let that sink in for a moment. Kentucky and Alabama are tied for the second highest quantity of experienced high-quality players returning in the SEC. Let it sink in that Kentucky is higher than Florida, nearly doubles Auburn, and more than doubles defending National Champion LSU for the same statistic. This is not your average Kentucky team. Matter of fact, this is not that 2018 Citrus Bowl Champion Kentucky team that won 10 games – this team is better. The overall talent on this UK team is the highest and deepest we’ve seen in the Stoops-era – probably in Kentucky history.
Now we’ll begin to break down the roster at every level. First up is the Cats’ biggest asset in 2020 – the offensive line.
Don’t get it twisted, Kentucky’s “Big Blue Wall” is the best offensive line in college football. Without question. Anybody who says otherwise is either too scared to give “Kentucky Football” that high of a pre-season praise in fear of risking their credibility among the college football world; or they’re just a Tennessee fan. At the end of the day, the numbers don’t lie – and they favor UK. PFF gave Kentucky this honor at the end of the 2019 season:
2. Ohio State
Clemson and Ohio State made the College Football Playoff last year and Kentucky’s o-line outranked them both. And that’s not the only PFF metric the Big Blue Wall held over teams to make the Playoff last season:
1. Kentucky (3.0)
1. Oklahoma (3.0)
3. Clemson (2.9)
4. Mississippi State (2.5)
5. Ohio State (2.5)
Kentucky’s o-line is tied with Oklahoma, another CFP team, and still outranks both Clemson and Ohio State. This offensive line group performed their tails’ off last season, and finished at the top of almost every possible measurable statistic, including this one from PFF:
1. Auburn (10.8%)
2. Notre Dame (11.3%)
3. Kentucky (11.6%)
The only man not returning on the line for UK this season is OT Logan Stenberg, who was selected by the Detroit Lions in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft. With his loss, this is where Kentucky ranks in the conference among returning o-line production per PFF:
1. Texas A&M (82%)
2. Arkansas (79%)
3. Kentucky (76%)
4. Ole Miss (72%)
Third in the SEC is exceptional considering how great UK’s offensive line was last year, and the caliber of that returning unit is reflected perfectly in the following statistic from PFF:
1. Kentucky (86.5)
2. Georgia (80.2)
3. Alabama (79.8)
4. Texas A&M (69.2)
Kentucky significantly outguns the entire SEC in terms of talented players returning down in the trenches. To break it down even further, take a look at the top returning individual o-linemen in the conference from PFF:
1. Darian Kinnard, Kentucky (89.2)
2. Jamaree Salyer, Georgia (81.3)
3. Trey Smith, Tennessee (78.6)
4. Landon Young, Kentucky (78.3)
5. Drake Jackson, Kentucky (78.0)
6. Ben Cleveland, Georgia (77.4)
7. Luke Fortner, Kentucky (77.0)
That’s right, four of the top seven returning SEC o-line performers from last season are all members of the Big Blue Wall – with OT Darian Kinnard leading the pack. Now it’s time to dive even deeper into the best of the Big Boys and put their individual talent in perspective with the rest of the conference and country.
First up is the best center in all of college football – Drake Jackson:
1. Drake Jackson, UK
2. Trey Hill, UGA
3. Brandon Kennedy, UT
4. Landon Dickerson, BAMA
5. Nick Brahms, AU
For the second year in a row Cubelic has Jackson listed as the best center in the SEC, and rightfully so. Earlier this summer, PFF labeled Jackson as the Most Valuable Center Returning to College Football in 2020, followed up by this outrageous stat:
Pass-Block Snaps = 974
QB Sacks Allowed = 1
That’s just an absurd and unheard-of number. Jackson is an absolute cinderblock in the middle, and not even Georgia or Alabama’s great defensive fronts will be able to get past him. Kentucky fans can sleep good at night knowing that #52 is their leader down in the trenches.
Now time for those monsters on the outside – the tackles – Darian Kinnard and Landon Young:
1. Darian Kinnard, UK (89.2)
2. Landon Young, UK (78.3)
3. Carson Green, A&M (76.3)
Not only does Kentucky have the best center in college football, but they also have the two best offensive tackles in the SEC according to PFF. Cubelic also agrees that both guys are top three OTs in the SEC this year:
1. Alex Leatherwood, Alabama
2. Landon Young, Kentucky
3. Darian Kinnard, Kentucky
4. Carson Green, Texas A&M
5. Wanya Morris, Tennessee
Cubelic lists Alabama’s Alex Leatherwood as the top OT for now, and while he might have the most upside and be the more “attractive” NFL draft prospect, the numbers still don’t lie. And right now, the numbers favor Landon and Darian significantly more. Here’s a little bit more in depth on Landon from PFF:
1. Derek Kerstetter, Texas (91.6)
2. Penei Sewell, Oregon (91.1)
3. Landon Young, Kentucky (89.2)
Pass-blocking is where Landon excels the most, and since the PAC-12 cancelled their season, he’s actually the second highest graded returning Power-5 o-lineman in pass-blocking. Just a phenomenal stat. But the best out of everyone on the Big Blue Wall is this man right here – Darian Kinnard:
1. Penei Sewell, Oregon (95.8)
2. Rashawn Slater, Northwestern (89.9)
3. Darian Kinnard, Kentucky (89.2)
4. Jordan McFadden, Clemson (88.3)
Again, since the PAC-12 and BIG-10 have cancelled their seasons, Darian is now the highest graded returning Power-5 offensive-tackle in 2020. The very best. But it doesn’t stop there, as PFF just recently updated their list for overall highest rated offensive linemen playing this fall:
1. Darian Kinnard, Kentucky (89.2)
2. Jordan McFadden, Clemson (88.3)
3. Brady Christensen, BYU (87.8)
4. Teven Jenkins, Oklahoma St (85.7)
Darian’s not just the best tackle in the country, but the best offensive lineman in all of college football. Just another advantage in Kentucky’s favor this season. Here’s where PFF ranked Darian out of all the players returning in the SEC, regardless of position:
1. Derek Stingley, LSU (91.7)
2. Ja’Marr Chase, LSU (91.1)
2. Nick Bolton, Missouri (91.1)
4. Darian Kinnard, Kentucky (89.2)
4. Malik Herring, Georgia (89.2)
6. Najee Harris, Alabama (89.1)
And with LSU receiver Ja’Marr Chase recently opting out of the 2020 season, Darian moves up to third, tied with Georgia’s Malik Herring. Put that in perspective – Kinnard is the best overall offensive lineman in the entire country and is tied for the third best overall player in the SEC. And just in case you’re still not sold on Darian, check out this PFF metric:
1. Andrew Thomas, Georgia (91.3)
2. Jedrick Wills, Alabama (90.1)
3. Darian Kinnard, Kentucky (89.1)
Andrew Thomas was the #4 pick and Jedrick Wills was the #10 pick in this past year’s 2020 NFL Draft. Darian was right there with them in terms of performance last season, which clearly proves he has the potential to be a first-round pick – maybe even top ten. Just emphasizing how loaded this Big Blue Wall truly is. Here’s one more o-line accomplishment for what it’s worth:
RT – Darian Kinnard, Kentucky
RG – Ben Cleveland, Georgia
C – Drake Jackson, Kentucky
LG – Trey Smith, Tennessee
LT – Alex Leatherwood, Alabama
You should now have it embedded in your brain that Kentucky has by far the best offensive line in the nation. But let’s be clear, a great o-line does not equal great offensive production. Thankfully, Kentucky has the playmakers to utilize the Big Blue Wall to its utmost potential.
Let’s start with the boys in the backfield.
1. Kentucky (278.8 Rush YPG)
2. Ohio State (266.8 Rush YPG)
3. Boston College (253.2 Rush YPG)
4. Ole Miss (251.3 Rush YPG)
5. Clemson (240.4 Rush YPG)
Last year Kentucky led all Power-5 teams in rushing offense – and this year they get all their running backs, back. They did lose offensive Joker-Card Lynn Bowden, who was only five yards shy of Cam Newton’s SEC QB Single Season Rushing Record (would love to emphasize that it took Lynn 8 games and Cam 14), however they do replace him with dual-threat former starting QB Terry Wilson, who (again) missed the last 11 games of the season in 2019 due to injury. Wilson rushed for 550 yards during Kentucky’s 10-win season in 2018. While the loss of Bowden hurts the 2020 rushing attack, it’s not as detrimental as it may seem on the surface with Terry returning. The Cats can be just as explosive running the ball this season as they were a year ago:
1. Oklahoma (117)
2. Clemson (115)
3. Ohio State (109)
4. Kentucky (106)
Once again, you see Kentucky in the same category as three of the four teams to make the Playoff last season. Kentucky’s backs are absolute studs, there’s a reason UK fans call them the “Three-Headed Monster”. We’ll get a little more specific here, first up is RB1 – senior AJ Rose.
Last season AJ racked up 826 yards and 6 TDs on 149 rushes, averaging 5.5 yards per carry. AJ stood out nationally in one particular area according to PFF:
1. Javonte Williams, UNC (704)
2. Travis Etienne, Clemson (674)
3. Michael Carter, UNC (673)
4. AJ Rose, Kentucky (598)
Anytime a running back is in the same vicinity as Clemson star Travis Etienne for rushing statistics, you know he’s got to be special. That’s exactly what AJ is – special. And with Terry back at QB, opposing defenses will now actually have to respect the pass when UK runs RPOs, which will give AJ even more room and time to create for himself. He’ll be lethal this year in UK OC Eddie Gran’s offensive scheme.
The #2 man at the running back position for UK is red-shirt sophomore Kavosiey Smoke, and this kid is an absolute star in the making.
Last season Smoke totaled 616 yards and 6 TDs on 101 rushes, averaging a stellar 6.1 yards per carry. Smoke stood out amongst the top backs in the SEC in one significant area:
1. Kavosiey Smoke, Kentucky (3.8)
2. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, LSU (3.4)
3. Rakeem Boyd, Arkansas (3.1)
4. D’Andre Swift, Georgia (3.1)
5. Najee Harris, Alabama (2.9)
That’s some highly respectable company for Smoke, and the fact that he’s at the top of the leaderboard is just utterly impressive – truly shows his elusiveness as a rusher. PFF pointed out another important stat in which Smoke was among the nation’s top rushers last year:
1. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, LSU (8.2)
2. Kavosiey Smoke, Kentucky (7.7)
3. Travis Etienne, Clemson (7.5)
Again, you have the starting running backs from both teams in the national championship game last year, and then you have Smoke right in the middle of them. He’ll definitely turn some heads this season.
The last man up in Kentucky’s trio of backs is red-shirt sophomore Chris Rodriguez.
Last season “C-Rod” posted 533 yards and 6 TDs on just 71 rushes, averaging a whopping 7.5 yards per carry. Many people think Chris could end up being the best back for UK this year despite only being the third-option right now:
1. Arik Gilbert, LSU
2. Treylon Burks, Arkansas
3. Chris Rodriguez, Kentucky
4. Eric Gray, UT
5. Darrian Dalcourt, Alabama
Cubelic expects Chris to have a breakout season and I don’t blame him – many of UK’s coaches have said in practice recently that he’s beginning to remind them more and more of Benny Snell. If he can live up to the hype, then Kentucky can take their rushing attack to a whole different level.
Now it’s time to talk about the GOAT – Terry “Touchdown” Wilson.
The unwarranted disrespect this man receives from the college football world should be illegal. I don’t care what anyone says. It takes a pretty damn good quarterback to beat a 10-win Florida team in the Swamp and a top 15 Penn State team in the Citrus Bowl during your first season as a collegiate starter (a starter in the SEC nonetheless) – all while leading your team to their first 10-win season in over forty years. Thankfully, Terry is slowly beginning to gain some recognition, as he was recently named to the 2020 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award Watchlist. Former Alabama safety and Super Bowl Champion, Roman Harper (current SEC Network Analyst) also gave Terry some praise recently:
1. Kyle Trask, Florida
2. Mac Jones, Alabama
3. Kellen Mond, Texas A&M
4. Terry Wilson, Kentucky
5. Bo Nix, Auburn
People have doubts about Wilson’s ability as a passer, but don’t realize he spent his entire rehab period becoming a more accurate and precise technician in the pocket – studying the playbook and opposing defensive schemes inside and out. He’ll be a more mature leader behind center this season and will display the best intangibles UK has fielded at that position since the days of Andre Woodson. When you combine all of that with his lethal rushing and scrambling abilities, the result is the best dual-threat QB in the SEC.
Highest Winning % Among Returning SEC QBs (Min. 10 Games)
1. Terry Wilson, Kentucky (.800)
1. Kyle Trask, Florida (.800)
3. Bo Nix, Auburn (.692)
4. KJ Kostello, Miss St (.655)
5. Feleipe Franks, Arkansas (.615)
6. Kellen Mond, Texas A&M (.611)
7. Ryan Hilinski, South Carolina (.571)
8. JT Daniels, Georgia (.500)
9. Jarrett Guarantano, Tennessee (.471)
10. Shawn Robinson, Mizzou (.430)
Terry Touchdown and Kyle Trask tied at the top of the SEC for winning percentage, yet people still think Trask is light-years ahead of Terry for some reason. It’s just ridiculous. The bottom line is that Terry is a winner – and that’s all he’s going to do this season. Bet on it.
Moving on to the wide receivers – this is the biggest question mark on UK’s team. Not because they aren’t good, but because we really don’t know much about them due to last season’s offensive-style changeup. UK only got to see their receivers’ true potential just briefly in the first two games last year before Terry got hurt. As previously noted, the next three games were played with an injured backup behind center, and the final eight were spent with WR Lynn Bowden playing QB – where UK’s offense would only attempt 74 total passes for the remainder of the season (less than 10 passing plays per game). PFF was able to find one metric where Kentucky’s WRs were amongst the top of the SEC last season:
1. LSU (4.9% - 23 Drops)
2. Georgia (5.4% - 16 Drops)
3. Alabama (5.9% - 19 Drops)
4. Kentucky (6.6% - 10 Drops)
5. Florida (7.0% - 25 Drops)
6. Vandy (8.1% - 19 Drops)
7. Auburn (8.6% - 23 Drops)
Kentucky’s wideouts are solid talents with a great deal of experience under their belt – look for any one of their core guys (Josh Ali, Bryce Oliver, Clevan Thomas, Allen Dailey) to have a breakout season this year.
Now it’s time to flip to the other side of the ball and breakdown the defense. This is Mark Stoops’ forte – his bread and butter. Stoops has turned Kentucky into a defensive powerhouse statistically in recent years. In the past two seasons, UK has held 24 of their 26 opponents under 30 points. PFF also pointed out that Kentucky hasn’t surrendered an 85.0+ grade to an opposing QB since 2017 either. Going into last year, Kentucky was very wary of their young and inexperienced defense, as they entered the season ranked 127th in percentage of returning defensive production. However, despite the youth, UK finished at the top of the nation statistically in a plethora of vitally important defensive categories. What Stoops and first-year DC Brad White were able to do with such a young and inexperienced group in the SEC is living-proof that both are some of the greatest defensive minds in all of college football.
1. Georgia (12.6)
2. Clemson (13.5)
3. Florida (15.5)
4. Notre Dame (17.9)
5. Alabama (18.6)
6. Kentucky (19.3)
7. Missouri (19.4)
8. Auburn (19.5)
9. Baylor (19.8)
10. Miami (20.2)
Kentucky ranked fourth in the SEC and sixth nationally in scoring defense last season among the teams playing this fall. One of the many reasons this Wildcats defense is considered one of the best returning units in all of college football. Saturday Down South recently gave UK’s defense a huge honor:
8. Texas A&M
9. South Carolina
12. Mississippi State
14. Ole Miss
Many ignorant and casual college football fans openly bashed SDS for their high ranking of UK. However, the stats you’re about to see will prove that SDS couldn’t have been more accurate with their ranking of Kentucky’s defense for 2020.
First group we’ll look at is the Wildcats’ secondary – which Rich Cirminiello (VP of College Awards for the Maxwell Club and NFL Draft Expert) is very fond of:
8. Ohio State
Rich currently has Kentucky as the fourth best secondary in the SEC, only behind LSU, Georgia, and Alabama – very respectable company. It’s also important to note that with the PAC-12 and BIG-10 cancelling their seasons, his updated list would actually have Kentucky as the fifth best secondary in the country. Why are so many college football experts high on Kentucky’s passing defense this year? The answer remains the same – the numbers don’t lie:
1. Kentucky (9)
1. Ohio State (9)
3. San Diego State (10)
3. Penn State (10)
Kentucky and Ohio State both only allowed nine passing TDs in 2019 – the lowest in all of college football. Considering the fact that UK’s entire secondary was built around first-year starters last season, one can only imagine the potential of this unit.
1. Ohio State (156.0)
2. Kentucky (167.8)
3. Notre Dame (168.5)
4. Clemson (172.3)
1. Ohio State (4.85)
2. Kentucky (5.69)
3. Virginia Tech (5.69)
Once again, Kentucky is at the top of the leaderboards with the CFP teams and contenders from last season. Here, PFF sheds light on certain individuals returning to the Wildcats’ secondary this season that ranked amongst the best in the SEC for various categories:
1. Quandre Mosely, UK (71)
2. Tyree Gillespie, Mizzou (55)
3. Cedrick Dort, UK (37)
4. Smoke Monday, AU (33)
1. Richard LeCounte, UGA (80.7)
2. Tyree Gillespie, Mizzou (80.0)
3. Shawn Davis, UF (79.3)
4. Quandre Mosely, UK (78.1)
5. Donovan Stiner, UF (74.8)
6. Lewis Cine, UGA (73.7)
7. Yusuf Corker, UK (72.8)
1. Derek Stingley, LSU (91.7)
2. Kaiir Elam, UF (87.8)
3. Patrick Surtain, Bama (83.5)
4. Eric Stokes, UGA (81.4)
5. Brandin Echols, UK (78.2)
6. Roger McCreary, AU (78.0)
7. Tyson Campbell, UGA (76.4)
8. Shawn Shamburger, UT (74.3)
This UK secondary returns the #1 and #3 ranked DBs in the SEC in terms of fewest receptions allowed per number of snaps played, the #4 and #7 highest graded safeties in the SEC, and the #5 highest graded CB in the SEC. Kentucky’s secondary isn’t overrated or overhyped, these guys are for real – and it’s time to stop downplaying them. PFF found one particular stat in which UK corner Cedrick Dort ranked first in the nation for his position:
1. Cedrick Dort, UK (30%)
2. Caleb Farely, Va Tech (33%)
3. Vincent Gray, UM (34%)
The best in the country. This is a very important stat for measuring cornerback talent-level, since pass-breakups and interceptions don’t always tell the full story. Dort was #3 on the list of most snaps per reception among returning SEC DBs as well – another prime example of how UK’s secondary will have the upper-hand in both the talent and experience departments on the vast majority of their opponents this season. PFF found another stat that ranks UK safety Yusuf Corker among the top DBs in the country as well:
1. Nick Pickett, Oregon (6.5)
2. Tariq Carpenter, Ga Tech (6.9)
3. Yusuf Corker, Kentucky (7.7)
4. Tre Sterling, Oklahoma St (7.7)
Again, since Oregon won’t be playing, Yusuf actually ranks second on this list. Just to emphasize the eliteness of this Wildcat secondary even further, Kentucky CB Brandin Echols ranked at the top of the SEC for this particular category last season:
1. Charles Oliver, A&M (3.6)
2. Brandin Echols, UK (4.2)
3. Shyheim Carter, Bama (4.5)
4. Demarkus Acy, Mizzou (4.7)
5. Eric Stokes, UGA (4.8)
Since Echols and Stokes are the only players on this list returning this season, the senior corner is actually the best in the SEC for this important statistic. UK’s DBs performed among the best of the best last year, both as a group and individually. Cats fans are thrilled to have everyone in that unit back for 2020, but what’s most exciting is that UK will actually be adding even more talented pieces to this elite secondary that were missing last season. Starting with Senior DB Davonte Robinson, who missed all of last year due to injury.
Robinson played in all 26 games in 2017 & 2018 – starting three during 2018. Florida fans remember him vividly for his fumble-recovery TD as time expired in UK’s upset over the Gators in the Swamp to end the streak.
Kentucky also adds LSU DB transfer Kelvin Joseph who played in 11 games for the Tigers as a true freshman back in 2018.
Many SEC fans have vocally dismissed UK’s addition of the former 4-star recruit as significant, with a “he wasn’t even good enough to play at LSU” ideology. Personally, I couldn’t think of a more idiotic approach to this situation. Joseph was a true-freshman on a team that was at the time the deepest and most talented secondary in the country. When has transferring to a new team and a new situation ever worked out in favor of a college football player? I mean, Joe Burrow and Justin Fields seemed to make the most of it last year. The point is to cut the Kelvin Joseph slander. He’s an extremely talented and athletic DB who will only make UK’s great pass-defense that much better. Kentucky’s secondary is the literal definition of a no-fly-zone, and you can (and definitely should) expect this unit to dominate the SEC in 2020 even more-so than they did last year.
The next group we’re going to take a look at is the big boys on the defensive line, and as a Kentucky fan you couldn’t dream of a better crew to send to into war against a 10-game SEC schedule.
The Cats’ DL is the deepest it’s ever been, with literally ten guys in the rotation for 2020. It’s the perfect combination of talent, depth, and (most importantly) experience; starting with SIXTH-year senior Phil Hoskins (yes – you read that correctly – SIXTH) who was granted an extension waiver by the NCAA after his season-ending injury last year. Hoskins was an important cog in the 2018 DL, and his maturity and experience will be a huge benefit for UK up front. Kentucky also returns senior Kordell Looney, who’s played in all but two of UK’s 39 games since 2017, as well as juniors Josh Paschal and Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald, who both played in every game last season.
UK is also very excited for two true-freshmen who will see a significant amount of reps on the defensive line this season – Josaih Hayes and Justin Rogers.
Hayes is a 6’3, 315lb, 4-star who was the #13 DT in the country and #2 player in the state of Mississippi last season (per Rivals) who committed to UK over Ole Miss, Auburn, and Mississippi State. Expect Hayes to make an early impact for the Cats down in the trenches. Justin Rogers, however, is the freshman everybody is going to have their eyes on this season.
Not just the highest ranked recruit of the Stoops-era, but the highest in Kentucky football history – Rogers is a 6’4, 340lb, 5-star DT who ranked as the #1 player in the nation for his position, the #1 overall player in the state of Michigan, and the #10 overall prospect in the 2020 class (per Rivals), who chose UK over Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia, and Tennessee. Expect Rogers to establish his dominant presence in the SEC this year by helping this Kentucky front-seven become one of the best in the nation.
Arguably the most important players on UK’s defensive-line are the nose-anchors in the middle – 6’3, 380lb junior, Marquan “Bully” McCall and 6’4, 360lb senior, Quinton Bohanna. Bohanna has started in 25 of Kentucky’s past 36 games and is destined to have a monster senior-campaign after almost leaving for the NFL draft last season. Bohanna is widely-regarded as one of the best defensive linemen in the SEC.
1. Tyler Shelvin, LSU
2. Jordan Davis, UGA
3. Christian Barmore, Bama
4. Quinton Bohanna, UK
5. Glen Logan, LSU
Cubelic currently has Bohanna listed as the fourth best interior defensive lineman in the conference, but by the end of the season people will realize that he should’ve been even higher.
Now it’s time to get into the really good stuff – the linebackers. There’s been a trend of elite LBs at Kentucky under the Stoops-regime, starting back in 2014 with first-round draft pick Bud Dupree. Two years ago, there was a legend by the name of Josh Allen playing linebacker in that Kentucky blue and white who finished his senior year as a consensus First Team All-American and All-SEC, the consensus National and SEC Defensive Player of The Year, and the #7 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. Remember when Kash Daniel said, “How do you replace legends? You become one” – enter Jamar “Boogie” Watson.
Not only can you expect Boogie to be the best overall player on UK’s team this year, but you can also expect him to follow in Allen’s footsteps as becoming one of the greatest edge rushers in college football history – and the stats prove this to be true. Boogie has already gained substantial pre-season recognition, recently being added to the Bednarik Award 2020 Watchlist for the best defensive player in college football. Let’s dive into these stats from PFF:
1. Boogie Watson, UK (38)
1. Azeez Ojulari, UGA (38)
3. Devonte Wyatt, UGA (36)
4. Dayo Odeyingbo, Vandy (35)
5. Big Kat Bryant, Auburn (31)
6. Aaron Sterling, S Carolina (28)
7. Marquiss Spencer, Miss St (27)
1. Boogie Watson, UK (89.5)
2. Christian Barmore, Bama (88.1)
3. Malik Herring, UGA (85.8)
Boogie is the best returning pass-rusher in the SEC for 2020 – surmounting the most QB pressures and the highest pass-rush grade in the conference last season. Boogie wasn’t just the best pass-rusher in the SEC, he was also at the top of the leaderboards nationally. Check out these stats from PFF:
1. Chris Rumph II, Duke
2. Jacob Panasiuk, MSU
3. Boogie Watson, UK
4. Wyatt Hubert, Kansas St
5. Malik Herring, UGA
1. Chris Rumph II, Duke (24.5%)
2. Boogie Watson, Kentucky (22.8%)
3. Josh Uche, Michigan (20.9%)
1. Malik Herring, UGA (90.5)
2. Boogie Watson, UK (81.6)
3. Azeez Ojulari, UGA (78.0)
For those of you who still don’t believe in the Boogie hype, I will now direct your attention to this final PFF stat:
1. Tim Williams, Alabama (29%)
2. Nick Bosa, Ohio St (26%)
3. Boogie Watson, Kentucky (22%)
3. Chase Young, Ohio St (22%)
5. Joey Bosa (21%)
Boogie amongst the legends – tied with Chase Young and higher than Joey Bosa. We’ll be hearing Boogie’s name in the same conversation as these guys in the years to come after this season, you better believe it.
UK’s other returning starting linebacker, junior DeAndre Square, received some very high praise from Bleacher Report recently:
1. Zamir White, UGA
2. DeAndre Square, UK
3. Trey Sanders, Bama
4. Jaylon Jones, A&M
5. Ryan Hilinski, USC
6. Malik Heath, MSU
7. Eric Gray, UT
8. Arik Gilbert, LSU
9. Mohamoud Diabate, UF
10. Big Kat Bryant, AU
If Square elevates his game to the next level like everyone is predicting him to, then Kentucky could end up with one of the best LB duos in all of college football this season. Boogie and Square might be the only household names in Kentucky’s LB core for now, but the Cats also return two talented juniors in Jamin Davis (played in every game past two seasons) and Jordan Wright (played in every game last season and nine in 2018). With Boogie leading the way at the edge position, Kentucky’s linebacker unit is destined to be one of the best in the nation this year.
The final group to discuss for the 2020 Kentucky team is the special teams unit – or really just Max Duffy.
In 2019, Duffy was a consensus First Team All-American and All-SEC. He won the Ray Guy Award for Punter of the Year in 2019 as well. PFF gave us this statistic on Duffy from last season:
1. Max Duffy, Kentucky (48.1)
2. Zach Harding, Army (47.8)
3. Trenton Gill, NC State (47.5)
People don’t realize just how much of an advantage it is for their opponent to have the best punter in the country until he pins their team’s offense inside their own five yard-line after every single defensive stop, refusing to surrender a touchback – that’s Duffy in a nutshell. He’ll complement Kentucky’s defense perfectly by forcing opposing offenses to start their drives in the worst possible field-position. Just another advantage in the Cats favor for 2020.
It’s about time to wrap this up. Let’s just briefly summarize the main points of this detailed report one last time for emphasis. Kentucky returns the most production from 2019 out of the entire SEC. They are tied with Alabama for the second-most high-level returning players in the conference – and only behind Georgia. The “Big Blue Wall” is the best offensive line in college football, which features the best overall offensive lineman and the best center in the entire country, as well as four of the top seven returning linemen in the SEC. UK returns all three running backs from a group that led the entire nation in rushing offense last season. Dual-threat Terry Wilson is back as the lead-man behind center, entering the season with the highest winning percentage out of all SEC QBs. The Wildcats return eight starters and a dozen other players who saw significant action on a defensive unit that finished 2019 ranked fourth in the SEC for least points allowed. They return everyone from their secondary that ranked as the best in the entire nation for passing touchdowns allowed and second best in passing yards allowed per game in 2019 – and UK will actually be gaining even more additional weapons in that department for this season. The defensive line is the deepest it’s ever been, with the perfect combination of talent and experience. UK’s linebacker core features arguably the best defensive player in all of college football, with talented veterans supporting him. They have the best punter in college football again and will certainly utilize that significant advantage they possess.
This is the year Stoops and Marrow have been building towards. This is the year they prove that Kentucky Football is here to stay as a legitimate contender in the SEC. For those of you who thought Kentucky peaked in 2018, I’m sorry – you were seriously (hilariously) misinformed. Throw out all your preconceived notions of Kentucky football and acknowledge the facts. This team is talented, experienced, and deep. It’s the perfect storm this year in Lexington. This Kentucky team will be taking the SEC East this season – and you can hold me to that!
Lastly, I kindly ask you to watch the promo video I made for this upcoming Kentucky team – and proceed to run through whatever wall stands in your way at its conclusion.
Go cats baby!