With a defense that ranked 59th in the nation in yards allowed (394) and 69th in the nation in points allowed (27.4 per game) in 2015, the pressure is on Kentucky Wildcats Coach Mark Stoops and defensive coordinator DJ Eliot to produce some better results in the new season. However ,unlike the offense which returns almost everybody from 2015, only one starter from last year’s front seven returns in 2016. In fact, the Cats finished last in the SEC in sacks with 17 and 12th in rushing yards allowed with 196.
Looking at the Kentucky Wildcats Defense/Special Teams
For Stoops’ team to take the next step in the SEC and get to six wins and a bowl game, that effort will have to start up front and it begins with nose tackle Matt Elam. The junior has dropped about 30 pounds in the off season and if he can finally show some of the promise he had coming out of high school when he was a five-star recruit by some services, the Wildcat defense will improve considerably.
The Cats line took a big hit on Monday when Stoops announced junior Reggie Meant will be out indefinitely dealing with “personal issues.” The 6’4” 300 pount Meant had 31 tackles and a sack in 2015. Stoops said his replacement will come from either seniors Courtney Miggins and Alvonte Bell or sophomores Kengera Daniel and Adrian Middleton. The other position in Eliot’s 3-4 defense will be held down by one of those players or another sophomore, Tymere DuBose.
The linebackers have a new coach in Matt House but will have to replace a number of players from 2015. Josh Forrest, who was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams, along with Ryan Flannigan and Khalid Henderson, combined for 208 tackles last season.
The top returner is sophomore Denzil Ware, who had 39 tackles and a sack from his hybrid defensive end/linebacker position. During the spring game, he had 10 tackles and four sacks.
Nebraska transfer Courtney Love is expected to take over in the middle. Love played in all 12 games for the Cornhuskers in 2014 before transferring to Lexington. The other two linebacker spots will be filled by sophomores Josh Allen and Jordan Jones. Minnesota transfer De’Niro Laster will also be in the mix for playing time.
The Wildcat secondary has a new coach as well. Steve Clinkscale comes to Lexington from Cincinnati, the third coach Stoops hired away from Tommy Tuberville’s staff. Luckily for Clinkscale, the secondary will be the strong suit of the defense and rivals the running backs for the best unit on the team.
Sophomore cornerback Chris Westry had two interceptions and defended a team high ten passes and was named to the All-SEC freshmen team. Derrick Baity holds down the other cornerback position and had 19 tackles and two pass break ups. Two more sophomores Mike Edwards and Darius West, along with senior Blake McClain, will hold down the safety postions. With another year’s experience, the hope is the Wildcats will improve on giving up 17 completions of over 30 yards, 11th in the SEC.
Special teams have been a big problem for Stoops in each of his three seasons in Lexington. Matt House takes over as special teams coordinator after Andy Buh left for Maryland. Stoops also hired Louie Matsakis as special teams quality control coach, showing he is serious about making that unit better.
The Wildcats ranked last in the SEC in punting, 11th in kickoff returns, 10th in punt returns and seventh in opponents punt returns. Not only are the stats not good but numerous times last season the special teams units had breakdowns at the absolute worst times.
Kicker Austin MacGinnis will try to return to his All-SEC and Freshmen All-American form he had in 2014. MacGinnis spent most of last season hobbled by a groin injury but still managed to make 13 of 17 field goals and 22 of 23 extra points. His injury prevented him from handling the kickoff duties which usually led to good field position for the Wildcat opponents. In 2014, MacGinnis set a school record with 25 touchbacks.
The Cats will have to replace four-year starter Landon Foster at punter. True freshman Grant McKinnis will get the nod as the starter. McKinnis was a four-star recruit and the fifth rated punter coming out of high school.
Running back Sihiem King will handle the kickoff return duties. He averaged 21.7 yards per return as a true freshmen in 2015. Senior Ryan Timmons will take the reins on punt returns. He averaged 7.4 yards per return in 2015 but the Cats had an SEC low 11 returns last year.
There are a lot of question marks on the Kentucky defense, especially with the loss of Meant. However, if the young players can step up, the Cats have a great shot at getting to six wins and the school’s first bowl game since 2010.