Mark Stoops came to Kentucky with a reputation as a high level defensive coach. He seems to have finally turned the corner at Kentucky to upholding that reputation. Kentucky has had a pretty easy schedule this year but they have played the bad teams how they should and made it hard for them to score. However, the best two teams on their schedule were able to score at will. This will be the third time that Stoops will have to figure out a way to stop Lamar Jackson. He can at least do so with the feeling that his defense this year probably has more talent than the others.
Kentucky’s issues on defense have always started up front and this year is no different. They continue to get next to nothing from their interior linemen and that allows teams to run the ball with ease as well as sit in clean pockets on pass plays. Adrian Middleton is the best player up front for UK but he only has 16 tackles on the year and 3 tackles for loss. Kentucky has gave up a ton of rushing yards to a power running team in Georgia last week but they were also gashed by Mississippi State and their spread-style attack.
The edges of UK’s defense is where they are at their best. Denzel Ware plays their hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker position and he’s played well with 6.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. Josh Allen has been a revelation at the opposite outside linebacker spot. He started the year with six straight games with a sack but he has cooled off as of late. These two provide a really good pass rush but neither are truly dynamic players that I would expect to run down Lamar Jackson like some of the top players we’ve seen be able to do at times.
Jordan Jones is the best player on the Kentucky defense and I believe he will play a big role in the game. In last year’s game he ended up with 10 tackles and a sack. He will be responsible again for trying to contain Lamar Jackson but he will also be tasked with stopping a running attack from Louisville that has relied on running backs more. UK has played the run very well outside of two games but they haven’t faced a read option attack like Louisville's. Jones will have to make big plays in this game to keep Louisville from running away with it. Slowing down Jackson would go a long way.
Kentucky doesn’t defend the pass well at all. They have one of the worst pass defenses in the country and they haven’t even been able to play well against the bad teams on their schedule. EKU completed 71% of their passes against them. Ole Miss had a backup quarterback throw for 382 yards and 4 touchdowns on them. Even Tennessee completed nearly 80% of their passes. A big issue is the lack of consistent pressure up front but at some point, you actually have to cover someone and they just don’t do that very well.
Kentucky still has a group of very big corners with Derrick Baity on one side and JUCO transfer Lonnie Johnson on the other. Both are 6-3 and they are backed up by 6-4 Chris Westry. I don’t really understand the obsession they seem to have with jumbo corners with their pass defense being so bad for so long but Baity can make some plays and Johnson has flashed some good skills at times. UK will utilize some corner blitzes and that’s where the size of these guys is a big plus. They all tackle pretty well and can bring a little more power when they are going in for a sack.
Safety is another strong point of this defense with Mike Edwards and Darius West leading the team in tackles. Edwards was a guy that I really wanted at UofL out of high school and he has developed into a much better player than I ever imagined. Edwards plays the ball really well as a deep zone safety but he also brings his pads when he plays the run. West isn’t isn’t the player that Edwards is in coverage but he plays the run very well and plays very comfortably in the box. UK likes to blitz their safeties a lot so I would be on the lookout for them to bring them in an attempt to fluster Lamar Jackson and get his feet moving in the pocket. Clemson and NC State found some great success by getting him uncomfortable and UK could try to do the same.