Kentucky football position breakdown: Confidence and some concerns on the Wildcat defense?

Brett Dawson
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON — You want size? Look at Kentucky’s defensive line. 

You want speed? Check out the Wildcats’ linebackers. 

Experience more your thing? UK’s front seven is peppered with it. 

“You got me, I’m back fully healthy this year,” linebacker J.J. Weaver said. “You got Jordan (Wright), he’s healthy. Octavious (Oxendine), he’s healthy. He learned everything from (former Wildcat) Josh Paschal. I think everybody’s gonna bring everything to the table this year.”

If you want physicality and a pass rush up front, the Cats have you covered. 

The question is if they can cover. 

There are holes to fill in a UK secondary that is without question the biggest concern on paper about a defense that otherwise looks poised to build on its recent success. And if that unit is as strong as Mark Stoops is hinting it might be, these Cats could look a lot like the excellent Stoops defenses of recent vintage. 

“I like where they’re at,” Stoops said of his defense. “I really do. I like their intensity. I feel like we’re a little more stout up front, a little more active in the secondary. We have more depth and the backers have a lot of experience. So put that all together and it’s a pretty good group, and they’re further advanced right now than we were probably at this time last year.” 

Here’s what that might mean at each position for a Kentucky team that could lean on its defense as the offense finds its way with new weapons under a new coordinator: 

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Defensive line

Kentucky's Octavious Oxendine celebrates after a Wildcat stop against Florida in the first half Saturday night at Kroger Field in Lexington. Oct. 2, 2021

Starters: DT Octavious Oxendine, NG Justin Rogers, DE Tre’Vonn Rybka

Backups: DT Deone Walker, DE Sam Anaele, NG Josiah Hayes, DL Darrion Henry-Young, DE Kahlil Saunders

Outlook: Pressure on the quarterback has been a staple of Stoops’s best teams, and this three-man front looks equipped to provide it. Oxendine has been “active,” Stoops said, in his return from a knee injury that ended his 2021 season after six games. Oxendine said he’s “more explosive, faster, quicker” after dropping some weight in the offseason. He’s dropped 25 or 30 pounds, he said, since arriving at UK. 

Rogers started four games last season, and Phil Steele named him a fourth-team All-SEC selection entering the season. Rybka started against Iowa in the Citrus Bowl to cap a redshirt season in which he played 12 games. 

And though there’s talent and experience, a freshman is an intriguing name to watch here. Walker made waves early with his combination of size and mobility, and the expectation is that he’ll make a significant contribution early. 

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Starters: OLB J.J. Weaver, MLB Jacquez Jones, WLB DeAndre Square, OLB Jordan Wright

Backups: OLB Tyrese Fearbry, OLB Keaten Wade, MLB D’Eryk Jackson, ILB Trevin Wallace, ILB Martez Thrower, ILB Luke Fulton

Outlook: Inside linebacker has the best combination of talent and experience on the defense — and perhaps on the team. Jones and Square will start there, giving UK an enviable foundation with two gifted players using the NCAA-allowed extra year of eligibility stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Jackson and Wallace likely would have started had that senior duo bounced to he NFL. Instead, they give the Cats a range of options and plenty of fresh bodies inside. 

There’s less depth at the outside positions, but UK has anchors there in Weaver and Wright, and the backups are young but promising. Kentucky's initial depth chart listed only one outside linebacker with a nickelback in the secondary. That's likely because Wright is among multiple players who are unavailable for the season opener. It's unclear when he'll return, but when he does, expect the depth chart to change.

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Starters: SS Tyrell Ajian, FS Jalen Geiger

Backups: SS Zion Childress, FS Jordan Lovett, DB Taj Dodson, DB Alex Afari

Outlook: Stoops said he feels “much better” about his secondary than he did a year ago, and much of that excitement probably centers on his options at safety. Ajian, who has 121 tackles, nine pass breakups and four interceptions in 49 games, opted to return for his “super senior” season. Geiger played in all 13 games last season and six as a redshirt freshman in 2020. 

Those two are the likely starters but hardly the only options. At least Childress, Lovett and Dodson should see action without a significant drop-off. Afari is listed as UK's Week 1 starter at nickelback, a position the Wildcats will deploy in certain formations, but likely will be in the safety rotation otherwise.

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Kentucky defensive back Carrington Valentine (14) and linebacker DeAndre Square (5) celebrate after Square intercepted a pass by Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras (7) to seal the win late in the second half of the Citrus Bowl NCAA college football game, Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022, in Orlando, Fla.

Starters: Carrington Valentine, Keidron Smith, Andru Phillips (Nickle)

Backups: Maxwell Hairston, Alex Afari Jr.

Outlook: And now to the question of coverage. This is perhaps the biggest mystery on the roster outside of Valentine, a proven player who should be Kentucky’s anchor here. The other corner was a major concern entering fall camp, but Smith — a transfer from Ole Miss — has made a strong early impression on coaches, and Phillips seems to have improved. 

Smith has played a significant part in helping his younger teammates along, and the defensive backs room in general has helped each other progress. 

“I feel good about what we’ve got,” UK defensive coordinator Brad White said. “I think we’ve got multiple guys that can play — and play at a winning level. But until the lights go on, you don’t know exactly where you are.” 

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