Experience, competition battles strengthen defense

Two years ago, UK had one of the worst defenses in the nation under former defensive coordinator Mike Archer. Last year, the Cats improved to allowing less than 400 yards a game, a 56-yard decrease, but not enough to change perceptions about UK’s defense.

Yet, when the 2008 edition of the Cats is discussed, defense is a talking point among coaches and players. So what changed?

“The fact is that we’re a year older,” junior defensive end Jeremy Jarmon said. “Everyone has experience and new depth allows competitions which helps guys grow faster.”

During the spring, the summer offseason and leading into fall practice, UK head coach Rich Brooks said he feels good about this year’s defense, which returns 17 of the top 22 defenders from last year. But one key aspect that was lost was Wesley Woodyard, a linebacker considered to be the defense’s best player and leader. Woodyard has led the team in tackles each of the past two seasons while doubling as the squad’s emotional leader. With him gone, Jarmon sees a team effort on the horizon, not a one-man show.

“We’re not going to have a guy who gets 130 tackles,” Jarmon said. “It’ll even out, we have great football players.”

Jarmon is expected to improve on last year’s nine sacks and 62 tackles as an anchor on the defensive line. Senior defensive tackle Myron Pryor and junior tackle Corey Peters are expected to help, if both can stay away from injuries that have plagued their careers. In fact, Peters is willing to debate just how much of an impact his defensive line teammates will have.

“Jarmon will always be Jarmon, the best defensive end in the SEC,” Peters said. “And Pryor is the best defensive tackle in the nation when healthy.”

Senior Braxton Kelley, a three-year starter at middle linebacker, will take over Woodyard’s spot on the weak side. Highly-touted junior Micah Johnson will get the chance to live up to the expectations put on him as a freshman as the new middle linebacker.

But the strength of the defense may live in the secondary. Junior Trevard Lindley was named a preseason All-Southeastern Conference selection and is only four pass break-ups away from the school record of 27. Senior Marcus McClinton returns after injuries sidelined him last season. Paul Warford was expected to play as the second corner until he was ruled ineligible this season, but senior David Jones is expected to push for playing time.

That’s the type of experience that Brooks hopes changes the tune of UK defense from years past.

“Looking around everyone in our starting lineup has starting experience,” Peters said. “No longer can we give up long drives.”

In addition to the returning starters, position battles at corner and the defensive end position opposite Jarmon are expected to help give UK’s defense some improvement. Senior linebacker Johnny Williams and junior safety Ashton Cobb also bring starting experience to the defense.

The key to an improved defense involves everyone getting better, Jarmon said. With Woodyard and the other seniors departed, the margin for error is smaller.

“Everyone has to get better in practice,” Jarmon said. “Wes made up for our mistakes, but he’s not here. We have to get better by watching film and being in shape.”