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Opponent Breakdown: Western Kentucky Hilltoppers Defense

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Western Kentucky rode a stingy defense to 9 wins last year and they bring a lot back.

NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Clayton White has been nominated for the Broyles award twice during his tenure at WKU. He might have a shot at winning it this year. White gets nine starters back this year and as long as they’ve been developing backups, he shouldn’t miss a beat in the two spots he needs to replace. Western has had some turnover at Head Coach but they were smart to keep White around.

The defensive front for the Tops will be a strength in some ways but might be a liability in others. DeAngelo Malone is an All-American level player after a ridiculous season in 2019. Malone had 99 tackles, 21 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, and 16 QB hurries. Malone pairs with Juwuan Jones at the end spots and they combined for nearly half of the teams tackles for loss and they had more than half of the teams sacks. They’re very good players but they need help.

The two tackles spots in this 4-2-5 scheme are mostly asked to just plug the middle and keep the linebackers clean, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be disruptive. Jeremy Darvin and Jaylen George will be the likely starters this year and both are big and stocky which means they’re hard to move. Louisville will have to do better this year at using outside zone to get around these guys and create running lanes for Javian Hawkins. In the game last year, they allowed these guys to beat them to the spot and that allowed their linebackers to run free and get to the edge with little resistance. We saw the line improve with this as the year went on, so I think we will see more success with the run game this year.

The Hilltoppers leading tackler returns at Middle Linebacker and they also get Eli Brown back after an injury last year. Kyle Bailey is a guy that will get you a bunch of tackles in each game but not much more. At least not consistently. He is really good in between the tackles and is a beneficiary of the tackles plugging things up for him. The defense doesn’t ask him to make a bunch of plays behind the line but I think they’ll need him to do more if UofL’s Offensive Line has truly taken that step forward.

Brown should be back as a starter this year and he should be fully healthy. Brown is a speedy Linebacker who transferred in from Kentucky a few years ago and he’s had a solid impact there. His speed is his key when it comes to this game as he could make it hard for the UofL line to reach him on those zone blocks. He is a bit undersized, however, so he can be easier to handle if you get your hand on him.

The secondary for WKU is a veteran group that is a strength of the defense. They had mixed results in the game last season because they don’t have the speed you need to keep up with Louisville’s receivers. They rely on a very good pass rush to keep things in front of them but that’s not always easy when you have the play action game that UofL has. Tutu Atwell was able to get behind the defense once last year and I’ll be surprised if Louisville doesn’t try to do that more often this year.

Trae Meadows and Dionte Ruffin should return as the starters at corner. Both players did a really good job of closing on the ball last year to break up passes or force a drop. While neither player is a standout in coverage, they fit this defense well because they are sticky in coverage and they break on the ball well. Louisville has to test these guys down the field which is something they didn’t do last season.

The safety combo of Devon Key and Antwon Kincade return for what seems like the fifteenth year. Key is a really good player who can play the run and the pass well. He has made some plays against Louisville during his career. Kincade was the guy that Atwell blew past for a touchdown last year but he was very good in run support in the game last year. Louisville has to be better in the run game so that they can force the defense to adjust and get favorable matchups with the secondary.