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Opponent Breakdown: Kentucky Wildcats Defense

NCAA Football: Missouri at Kentucky Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

As Mark Stoops worked to develop an identity on the offensive side of the ball, he carved out a specific way of doing things on the defensive side of the ball. Stoops wants to stop the run and he wants his defense to keep everything in front of it in the pass game. The first part of that equation has been pretty solid this year but UK’s pass defense has struggled to stop just about anyone. Louisville will be another team that has the tools to test this defense.

Stoops has invested in one thing throughout his time at Kentucky and that’s massive defensive tackles. Deone Walker may be the best he’s had yet. Walker leads UK in just about everything but tackles and watching him play is like watching the kid who was always way bigger than everyone else in Pop Warner. He bulldozes offensive linemen on a regular basis and he has the speed and quickness to chase things down once he’s in the clear. It will be a fun matchup between him and UofL’s interior line.

J.J. Weaver is the key player on the edge for Kentucky and the veteran pass rusher has fallen off a bit after a strong season in 2021. Weaver has 5.5 tackles for loss on the season and 4 sacks. However, you’d like to see his numbers improve after his breakout sophomore year.

The middle of the UK defense has been exceptional again this year with D’Eryk Jackson leading the way. He and Trevin Wallace make a lot of plays in the run game but they’ve also done really well in pass coverage as well as pursuing plays after the catch. Jackson had a very nice pick-six a few weeks back and Wallace made a big hit on a short pass early in the season that led to a fumble recovery for a score. These guys are super active and they can run well.

The top player on the Kentucky defense this year is Maxwell Hairston. The Sophomore cornerback leads the SEC in interceptions and he is second in the country with five on the season. He has also returned two of those picks for touchdowns. Hairston is a big corner with exceptional ball skills and instincts. With UK’s scheme, he doesn’t have to have great speed but his length has definitely helped him in coverage down the field.

The opposite side of the field is not so great for the Cats. Andru Phillips is putting up some horrendous numbers in coverage. He’s allowing 71% of targets against him to be completed with 4 touchdowns given up and he’s only forced two incompletions per PFF. This is a matchup that Louisville has to exploit.

The safety position is pretty young for UK but Zion Childress has been a productive player. Childress has been good in run support as well as in coverage and he fits what they like to do with their safeties jumping routes across the middle and breaking up or picking off passes. I would expect him to be a factor this week if UofL continue to try to include the tight ends as they did against Miami.