Mark Stoops is a former defensive coordinator and when he came to Lexington many believed that he would bring a great defensive system. Instead, Stoops attempted to bring an "Air Raid" offensive philosophy that failed him. Stoops has yet to have a defense that could consistently stop opposing offenses. Stoops' early recruiting classes were highly-touted, but they haven't totally panned out on the defensive side of the ball. Some of it is due to injuries but it has always felt like they just missed on too many guys. They've also relied on help from JUCO transfers which can turn into an issue when you don't back fill that position with a high school player that can eventually take over. Stoops has finally fielded a defense with some solid things going for it this year. He has a couple of guys that can make impact plays and he has some depth to withstand injuries and fatigue.
Kentucky's 3-4 base defense adjust into a 4-man line a lot but the base line doesn't do much at all from an impact standpoint. Adrian Middleton has played better in recent weeks but he and Courtney Miggins have both been guys that just try to hold up blocks and let the linebackers make plays. That's not a bad thing for this system, but it's just as boring as it sounds. Honestly, UofL's system really doesn't ask the defensive line to do that much more than UK's does. But they still make plays. DeAngelo Brown leads the team in tackles for loss, for example. Naquez Pringle mans the nose tackle spot for the Wildcats but he hasn't done much to make plays either. Matt Elam doesn't play anymore but Pringle wasn't really much of an upgrade at the position. Louisville's offensive line is coming off of a horrible game so the Wildcat defensive line might be on top of their game in hopes to have a similar outing to Houston's.
Kentucky's linebackers are the best they've been during the Stoops era. Jordan Jones and Josh Allen are new starters this year and both have played very well. One could even argue that Jones could be a first team All-SEC player. Jones is the weakside linebacker while Allen plays on the strong side for UK. Weakside linebackers have given UofL fits for a few years now and Jones is one of the best in the SEC. Jones leads the team in tackles with 90 and tackles for loss with 12. Stoops and D.J. Eliot had to watch the Houston game with smiles on their faces because they get an extended week to figure out how to replicate some of the things that the Cougars did. That is, if they're worth their paychecks. Allen leads the team in sacks this year and he could really cause some issues for the Louisville offensive line because he is a long guy that comes off the edge well.
Courtney Love and Denzel Ware round out the group with Ware being the guy that slides down to the line when needed. Ware is a good pass rusher but I do wonder how he handles being one of the guys responsible for containing Lamar Jackson. Ware isn't really a fluid player and doesn't change direction all that well. He's more of an effort guy with above average speed as opposed to being a guy that can bend or turn and run. Ware will likely be an issue as a pass rusher, though. Louisville's tackles haven't blocked anyone lately but they really struggle against guys that can run well. These guys might not be overly talented but they all have made plays this season. That's not something that UK has had since Avery Williamson and Danny Trevathian were there. Louisville has to attack these guys and not sit back and wait to see what they're going to do like they did with Houston's exceptional linebackers.
The secondary for Kentucky is much improved. We won't likely see Louisville receivers picking on insanely overmatched cornerbacks like we did when DeVante Parker was here. They also have another year under their belt, so they should handle Louisville's passing attack better than they did last year. Chris Westry and Derrick Baity are both about the same size as UofL's tallest receivers and both have been solid players since becoming true freshman starters last year. Westry is the better player, in my opinion, but Westry has made more plays this year as he leads the team in picks. Some of that might be due to teams avoiding Westry, but I haven't seen that in the games I've watched. Either way, both players are capable of hanging with UofL's receivers and making it harder for Lamar Jackson to find an open receiver.
Mike Edwards was once a UofL recruit that I personally really wanted the staff to land. He seemed like a UofL lean but he ended up signing with UK and he's developed into a pretty good safety for the Wildcats. Edwards is on the smaller side but he's still second on the team with 87 tackles to go along with 8 PBUs. Edwards can handle slot receivers and tight ends in coverage as well as playing deep zone. He is the type of player that should be able to make a play on Jackson in the open field which bodes well for UK. His partner at safety is Marcus McWilson who is a veteran player who knows the rivalry well and should be a solid player for the Cats. Blake McCain mans the nickel spot and will be called upon to help contain the edge like Ware. McCain is another veteran player but UK hasn't stopped a running quarterback at all this year so I don't know how that would change against the best of all of them.
KEY PLAYERS: DE/OLB Denzel Ware, WLB Jordan Jones, SLB Josh Allen, SS Mike Edwards