Don’t overlook Kentucky’s defense in 2021


UK defensive coordinator Brad White pulls J.J Weaver (13) to the side side during a timeout to discuss the play at hand during the University of Kentucky vs Ole Miss football game on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020, at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky. UK lost 41-42. Photo by Victoria Rogers | Staff

Barkely Truax

Other than a few key pieces, Kentucky’s defense is starting from scratch heading into the 2021 season.

“[This defense] has that feel back from 2019 after we lost Josh [Allen],” defensive coordinator Brad White said. “I’ve got to put guys in place to succeed.”

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He first mentioned two of UK’s freshman linebackers, Trevin Wallace and Martez Thrower. “They’ve done some good things. There’s a lot of defense they have to wade through,” he said. “The fun thing about it is they love [playing] ball. They’ve got a knack for finding the football.”

Down low, White feels confident about Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald and Octavious Oxendine. White is looking for players to step up at defensive tackle, which is a position that has suffered in the past couple of years for the Wildcats. “[Fitzgerald is] going to be a major factor for us,” White said.

He’s still trying to figure out where the 320-pound Oxendine fits into the lineup.

White brought up more positives about UK’s true freshmen on the defensive line: Jamarius Dinkins and Kahlil Saunders. “They’re what you look for,”he said. “That’s what an SEC defensive lineman looks like.”

They’ll all find their sort of niche role because they’re all different in their own way, White said about his defensive line. “They have to figure out the speed and the pace and the strength [of playing in the SEC].”

White credited Marquan “Bully” McCall for being a leader of that group. That includes two fellow nose guards, who are about to suit up for year two in Lexington, Justin Rogers and Josaih Hayes. The defensive linemen group will run deep, featuring young players that will be interchangeable throughout the duration of this season.

White can’t say that about every position on his defense, though. He’s not “overwhelmingly” happy with the defensive depth heading into game one, but he does feel confident in the backups being focused and improving during fall camp.

“At certain spots, you definitely feel better than others, but that’s the same for every program around the country,” White said. “I do feel good about the fact that those next guys up are dialed in.”

He says they’re continuing to get better and that he likes the energy of this group.

At the end of 2020, Kentucky ranked 113th in pass rushing out of 126 Division One FBS teams, something that has to change this season if the team wants to be successful in the SEC. That starts with getting to the quarterback.

“You go against the same guys everyday [in camp], sometimes you get more of a tendency read,” White said about competing against Kentucky’s new high-tempo offense in camp. “It’s hard to gauge.”

It’s a group effort if Kentucky’s pass rushing unit wants to turn their performance around. “We’ve got pieces in place to become a good pass rushing unit … it takes all 11,” he said. “Everybody’s got to do their job, including the coaching staff.”

White is taking baby steps with this defense, which he’s taking one practice at a time, he said. “I’m not crazy optimistic that we’re [going to] have 30-some sacks,” he said. “The front gets the [brunt] of that critique, but everyone’s got to do their job, including the coaching staff.”

While the defense is anchored by returning stars such as DeAndre Square, Josh Pashcal, Jordan Wright and Davonte Robinson, White pointed out one player in particular that he believes to be the defense’s “X-factor”: Yusuf Corker.

“He’s right on the cusp of being a really great player,” White said of the senior. “He’s one that people need not forget. He’s been Mr. Reliable for us for the past couple of years … If he can play at that level, this defense can be something really special.”

Corker, a defensive back, is slated to fill in the holes left by Kelvin Joseph and Brandin Echols, who are both set to start their NFL careers with the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Jets, respectively. While it’s not easy to fill the shoes of NFL-level talent, White expects Corker to take the task in stride and excel.

“[It’s] trial by fire. Especially going against the offense we’re going against, they’re getting stretched,” White said. “If you’re not a starter, you better train and prepare as a starter because [multiple players are] going to be in the games.”