When Kentucky hired Mark Stoops it did what most schools do and hired a coach who specialized in the opposite side of the ball from the coach that just left. Stoops led Florida State's defenses to very strong results so they picked a guy that had shown that he knew defense very well. Throw in his family name and one would expect that Kentucky's defense would the strong point on this team. That hasn't been the case so far during Stoops' time as the head coach. UK had two defensive ends drafted last year after good seasons but there hasn't been much else to be excited about. Kentucky will need an outstanding performance from their defense Saturday to pull off the upset.
The defensive line for Kentucky has been a mixed bag of stellar play and lack of production. Corey Johnson is one of the better defensive players Louisville has faced this year. As a defensive tackle, Johnson has had a few unbelievable games including a 19 tackle performance in a close game against EKU. That's absurd. Johnson is also an outstanding athlete for his size as he displayed last weekend when he spun around and made a diving interception near the sideline. Johnson is an outstanding player that will be matched up with Skylar Lacy fairly often Saturday. Lacy will have to have one of his best games.
The rest of the defensive line isn't putting up near the production that Johnson is. Melvin Lewis was injured in their three point loss to Auburn and UK immediately gave up 200+ rushing yards in their next three games. Lewis' replacement? Former 5-star Matt Elam. I pride myself on not talking down about players from either team but Matt Elam doesn't do anything well on the football field. For a guy his size, he should demand double teams and at times he is being double teamed. The issue is that he doesn't force a double team and he doesn't create havoc. Guys his size should be pushing guys back into the pocket or the running back. He should be taking up two blockers and allowing the linebackers to run freely. Instead, he is typically blocked easily by one linemen and if they double team him, the second blocker can peel off to get to the linebacker. This defense was pretty good with Melvin Lewis. They've been terrible with Matt Elam.
The group of linebackers for the Wildcats is led by Josh Forrest and his insane motor. Forrest got some love on the All-SEC teams last year but he has really been impacted by the loss of Lewis. Forrest has had multiple games where he has made two tackles or less. He's a much better player than that. However, he isn't a physical guy and doesn't take on blockers very well. What he does really well is run and with blockers getting to him he's not able to do that.
Forrest is flanked by Jason Hatcher on the strong side and Khalid Henderson and Ryan Flannigan on the weakside. The outside players are very similar to the defensive ends for Kentucky as they don't make a lot of impact plays. They're all solid players but none of them play the pass very well and they aren't good blitzers. Hatcher could be an option as a pass rusher opposite Denzel Ware on passing downs and I do think that could be an issue for Louisville. The tackles don't handle speed very well and both have plenty of that.
Kentucky finally found two new cornerbacks. Fred Tiller and Cody Quinn have seemingly been the starters forever and they spent their careers getting picked apart by Teddy Bridgewater and DeVante Parker. Kentucky made the change to a pair of very tall and lanky true freshmen in Chris Westry (6-4) and Derrick Baity (6-3). Westry will likely end up on a few freshmen All-American lists this year with his 8 PBUs and two picks. Westry knows how to use his size and length to make plays and he has improved as the season has progressed. Baity isn't there yet, to put it bluntly. He still gets lost at times when he's beat. Good corners know how to recover and if Baity can get there I think UK will have two guys that can greatly improve their defense. You can't teach size and these guys have it by the boatload.
For whatever reason, safety has been an issue for Kentucky this year. If there was an area on this defense that I thought would be perfectly fine headed into the season it would be in the back end. Marcus McWilson and A.J. Stamps are both very good tacklers and Stamps played very well as a deep safety last year. Mike Edwards has been siphoning the playing time of one or the other since the Mississippi State game and UK's defense has been giving up ridiculous amounts of rushing yards since.......the Mississippi State game. Edwards is a better player against the pass than McWilson but Stamps is a proven player as he had four picks last year, including one against Louisville. I would imagine that there are things that have happened that I just haven't seen but I just don't get it. Stamps has earned his starting role back and he will be playing ahead of McWilson. I would imagine that things could change if UofL gets the running game going.
KEY PLAYERS: DT Corey Johnson, MLB Josh Forrest, CB Chris Westry, S A.J. Stamps, S Marcus McWilson