Defensive Coordinator Brad White is entering his second year in the position; returning with him is over half of his 2019 starting unit, which ranked 21st nationally in total defense and 13th in scoring defense.
With the mixture of returning starters, impact transfers and one of the more impressive recruiting classes in the Mark Stoops era, the defensive group could be the most talented roster Stoops and co. have assembled in Lexington.
The unit has oozed confidence throughout preseason camp, but also given the public no reason to believe it won’t follow up on last season’s unexpected greatness.
“The chip [on your shoulder] never changes, because the hardest thing to do is be consistent and that’s our challenge this year,” said junior cornerback Cedrick Dort Jr. in a post-practice interview on Aug. 20.
Dort said that the team’s performance last year gave them a confidence boost.
“We really want to step up our game and do everything we did last year, but do it 10x better this year,” Dort said.
Some players, including those who didn’t get the chance to contribute in 2019, have been more brash.
“What’s the point of sugarcoating if I know what we can do?” said defensive back Kelvin Joseph. “I’m not going to keep it a secret: we not getting the respect that we supposed to be getting.”
Joseph is one of those impact transfers, a former four-star prospect who is now eligible after having to sit out last season due to NCAA transfer rules. The former LSU product hasn’t taken lightly to the perceived disrespect for the secondary he is now part of.
“Imma just let the people know who are not respecting us that we on our way, and we not playing,” Joseph said.
Kentucky was top 25 in the country last year in passing defense and tied for first in passing touchdowns allowed with Ohio State (9). But the secondary doesn’t feel its fantastic year and potential for 2020 is being recognized loudly enough.
The starting corners – Dort and Brandin Echols – both return following stellar years. Pro Football Focus had Echols on its Preseason All-SEC Second Team, and the fifth highest rated returning corner in the SEC. Not to be outdone, Dort gave up a D-1 low 30 percent completion rate in 2019, showing elite ability on the outside.
Joseph and M.J. Devonshire look to supplement those two both on the outside and in the slot. Each has some experience, with Devonshire suiting up in three games in 2019 and Joseph doing so in 11 games during 2018 with the Tigers.
The return of Davonte Robinson also adds another dimension to the backend. The slot corner is itching to get back onto the field after tallying four pass break-ups and two fumble recoveries in the Cats’ 10-3 season. After being a popular breakout pick last year, Robinson is being underrated coming into 2020, according to one of his teammates.
“If there's one person I feel like people are sleeping on, it's D-Rob,” Brandin Echols said. “With all the experience he has and all the talent he's bringing back to the table, I feel like he's going to make a big impact.”
At safety, the Cats have two PFF preseason All-SEC Third Teamers in Quandre Mosely and Yusuf Corker. Mosely appeared in every game last year and Corker led the entire defense in tackles with 74.
A somewhat surprising development in the loaded group is a potential role for freshman Vito Tisdale, who has been raved about all summer.
“He’s got some of those qualities that attract people. People like being around Vito and he’s got a really good personality in that regard.” Coach White said about the 6’1” safety.“There’s a lot we need to clean up in terms of technique and understanding and play style… but he does some things that are extremely natural and those are the things you can’t teach.”
The secondary’s strength will also potentially allow for some leeway in other areas of the defense where players are stepping into bigger roles while being tossed into the fire of SEC competition.
This is notably the case at inside linebacker, as Jamin Davis moves into the starting lineup and cement a role while Chris Oats remains away from the program for undisclosed reasons. Whatever battle Oats is going through has given Davis and his teammates’ something to play for that’s bigger than themselves, and even the program.
“We just always keep him and his family at the top of our minds,” Davis said earlier in the offseason. “We just do what we can do honor him as best we can and just know that we’re doing everything for 22, honestly.”
Davis tallied 32 tackles and appeared in all thirteen games in 2019. He said the game was moving a little too fast for him at times, but used the offseason and preseason to dive into the playbook even more to help build confidence after ending the season strong. He also will get help from the man he’ll be lining up next to, Deandre Square.
Square has consistently flashed sideline-to-sideline ability during his time making tackles all over the field. With Kash Daniel graduated, he is now the anchor of the inside linebacking core and the coaching staff is really excited about his prospects this year. True freshman Torrance Davis has also received some buzz.
On the edge, coach White has put astonishing expectations on Jamar “Boogie” Watson, wanting to see a Josh Allen-esque leap his senior year. “Boogie” is embracing the challenge.
“I think I’m one of those guys who has a chance to make it to the next level,” Watson has said. “If I play the way I need to play this year, play the right way and the way I know I can play, I got a better chance at fulfilling my dream.”
Watson tallied six and a half sacks last season, good for sixth in the SEC. With his confidence matching the expectations of his coaches, he could be looking at a double-digit sack season. Jordan Wright and J.J. Weaver are the top candidates to split time on the opposite side. Wright has the edge in experience, but Weaver has been turning heads in practice this preseason.
The options on the edge have given Josh Paschal the opportunity to move back in the trenches, something he said he feels more comfortable doing because his natural position is at defensive end. Coaches have been impressed his transition back to the spot.
Defensive tackle is expected to be one of the strongest position groups on Kentucky’s team this year. A mixture of seniority and potential makes up the intriguing core.
Phil Hoskins is the veteran of the unit, joined by some of Kentucky’s biggest recruits. Josaih Hayes has been garnering some attention in camp, and everyone’s eyes will be locked onto Justin Rogers. The four-star prospect from Oak Park, Michigan was the gem of Kentucky’s 2020 class and expects to fight for time immediately. North Hardin product Octavious Oxendine rounds out the raw and youthful but talented freshman trio.
Quinton Bohanna is again set to man the nose tackle position and make life difficult on opposing centers. Both he and coach White expect a step up in productivity that will impress scouts at the next level.
“He doesn’t want me to shy away from the fact that we need more out of him,” White told reporters. “I really expect to get more out of him in the pass rush game this year… he doesn’t need to be thought of as just a run guy.”
The defense has been the strength of Kentucky football for the past few years, and seems poised to once again in 2020. Just how far it can carry this team against an extremely tough schedule remains to be seen.