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Previewing Alabama vs. Kentucky: The Wildcat defense

To hear some folks tell it (cough-Lee Corso-cough), Kentucky has the worst defense in football history. But with Head Coach Mark Stoops taking more of an active role, are they primed for a turnaround?

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Kentucky
Though they’ve not had the best season, the Kentucky defense began to turn things around against South Carolina.
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Not everyone takes the meanderings of ESPN College GameDay’s Lee Corso as gospel, but recently, one of his hot takes hit home with the Kentucky Wildcat faithful. Corso stated, on national television, that after the first three weeks of the 2016 season, Kentucky had possibly the worst defense in the history of college football.

Of course, anyone familiar with Corso (who was once the coach at Kentucky‘s arch-rival, Louisville) knows of his penchant for unfounded hyperbole from time to time. But after surrendering 89 points in their first two outings against offensive juggernauts like Southern Miss and Georgia (tongue-firmly-in-cheek), the performance of the Wildcats begged the question: how bad is this Kentucky defensive unit?

Their impotence is something of a mystery, as the roster is certainly not devoid of talent. Monster nose Matt Elam was a five-star guy (according to some recruiting services) heavily recruited by Bama. The secondary is full of experienced defensive backs, many of whom have good size for the position at six feet tall or better. And then there’s Mark Stoops’ defensive pedigree: he brought the “Desert Swarm” back to Arizona, and he turned around an FSU defense that had become ineffective, converting them into the unit that Jeremy Pruitt guided to a National Championship as defensive coordinator in 2013.

So what’s wrong with the Wildcat defense? Given the criticisms, is there anything at all right with what they’re doing on the defensive side of the ball? Certainly, it can’t be as bad as Corso made it out to be…can it?

Regardless of their record and apparent lack of defensive prowess in 2016, the Wildcats are an SEC foe that Alabama’s offense must find a way to dismantle this coming Saturday. Where are the soft spots in the Wildcat defense? Where will Alabama have its greatest opportunities to make hay? Let’s take a closer look…

The Roster

As previously stated, the Kentucky defensive roster is not without talent. In fact, the contrary is true. While green at almost every position in the front seven, the Wildcats have some players after Stoops has done a decent job recruiting football talent to what has traditionally been known as a basketball school.

Starting in the front seven, the Wildcats this year have the task of replacing five of the seven starters in the front seven from 2015. Not to mention, six of the top seven tacklers from the Wildcat roster left the program, either through graduation or attrition. With a complex, multiple defense that does an awful lot of two-gapping when in the 3-4 set (though the Wildcat defense is truly multiple, using some one-gapping 4-3 schemes and routine 4-2-5 and 3-3-5 nickel looks), a lot of new faces among the front seven often results in problems, as young defenders suffer the growing pains of learning to read and react to their myriad new responsibilities.

One returning starter however is the aforementioned Elam, a gigantic nose tackle who is surprisingly athletic for a man of his pure size. Elam, a junior, weighs in a 6-7, 360 pounds, and he fills the role of the two-gapping 3-4 nose well. Elam has only recorded four tackles thus far in 2016, but that doesn’t change the fact that he is a double-team-battling giant of a man who is just a few cheeseburgers short of 400 pounds. He is what you want in a nose: a big, physical guy who can soak up double-teams and clog any attempt at an interior running game. Elam fits that part to the letter. Backing Elam up is another large man in junior Naquez Pringle (6-3, 320 pounds), who is athletic and may be a tad better in the pass rush than his larger counterpart in the heart of the Wildcat defense. Pringle has posted 12 tackles in 2016, along with 1.5 tackle for loss and half a sack.

Joining Elam at the other tackle position (which sometimes also lines up as an end with an upright pass-rushing linebacker beside him) is sophomore Adrian Middleton (6-3, 303 pounds). Middleton is another -300-plus-pounder who is equally good at playing the run and rushing the passer, though he is a newcomer to the starting rotation this season. This year, he has accounted for nine tackles and half a sack, but the Wildcats hope that he becomes a steady force alongside Elam and Pringle in the center as he gains experience. Spelling Middleton is sophomore Tymere Dubose (6-5, 320 pounds). Dubose has played sparingly in relief, with only four tackles to his credit. But when one looks at the size and athleticism the Wildcats have in the interior defensive line, it’s hard to imagine how the unit could be so ineffective at times.

At defensive end, the Wildcats have a steady performer in the long, athletic senior Courtney Miggins (6-5, 285 pounds). Miggins is one of two returning starters in the front seven, and he has accounted for 15 tackles, three tackles for loss, three passes broken-up, three passes defended and a forced fumble. Miggins is rangy and can be quick off the edge, though he’s not nearly as explosive as some ends the Tide will face this season. Behind Miggins is another player with great length in senior Alvonte Bell (6-5, 260 pounds), who has recorded 16 tackles, along with a quarterback hurry and half a TFL.

When the Wildcats are in the 3-4, they typically bolster the pass rush with a linebacker who lines up like a defensive end (either as a proxy down lineman or an upright rusher). This season, that role falls to probably the most explosive pass rusher on the Wildcat roster, specifically sophomore Denzil Ware (6-2, 255 pounds). Ware has good jump off the snap and is solid in his pass rush technique for a second-year talent. When the Wildcats go to a more traditional 4-3 look, Ware puts his hand in the dirt like a traditional defensive end. He’s versatile enough to thrive in either role. In 2016, Ware could be a breakout star, as he has already recorded 17 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, and two quarterback hurries. Behind Ware at the LB/DE hybrid role is junior Minnesota transfer De’Niro Laster (6-4, 241 pounds), a player who the Wildcat staff hopes can help bolster what was a wretched pass rush last year.

Sophomore Josh Allen (6-5, 230 pounds) has the starting Sam linebacker position locked up, though he has fellow sophomore Jordan Bonner (6-5, 220 pounds) waiting in the wings. Allen has been a steady producer in 2016, accounting for 22 tackles, three tackles for loss, three sacks, a quarterback hurry and a forced fumble. The Wildcats really need Allen to step up and take an active leadership role in the defense despite his youth, as the Wildcat linebacker play has been spotty at best in the early going.

Junior Courtney Love (6-2, 242 pounds) mans the Mike position, and the Nebraska transfer is another player who the staff believes can make an impact on the Wildcats’ loathsome pass rush stats from the previous season. So far, the Love project has been successful, as he has accounted for 24 tackles and a quarterback hurry. Behind Love is freshman Kash Daniel (6-1, 241 pounds), which says something about the Wildcats’ depth at the position, though Daniel is a talented former Army All-American.

The most dynamic true linebacker on the Wildcat roster is undoubtedly sophomore Jordan Jones (6-2, 220 pounds), a young player who saw action last season as a freshman. As the Will linebacker, the active Jones has been responsible for 43 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack, two passes broken up, two passes defended, and two quarterback hurries. Jones is as steady as they come on the strong side, and has the tools to become one of the Wildcats best defenders in time. Spelling Jones is another, less-experienced sophomore in Eli Brown (6-2, 215 pounds).

The secondary is well-stocked for the Wildcats, with great size and experienced depth at many positions. At the corners, the Wildcats have rising star sophomore Chris Westry (6-4, 195 pounds) and fellow explosive sophomore Derrick Baity (6-3, 182 pounds). You read that right: the Wildcats have two corners taller than most of Alabama’s receivers, which will no doubt present a new challenge for Bama QB Jalen hurts and his corps of wide receivers. Baity has been active, accounting for 14 tackles, two interceptions, three passes broken up, five passes defended and a quarterback hurry. Westry has been responsible for 13 tackles, two passes broken up and two passes defended in limited time as a freshman last season. Behind Baity, the Wildcats are relying on a true freshman Jordan Griffin, while seasoned senior J.D. Harmon (6-2, 200 pounds) spells Westry. Though Harmon isn’t starting, he is well-versed in the Wildcat corner role and sees a lot of playing time, as he already accounted for 17 tackles, two interceptions, a pass broken up and three passes defended this season.

At the safety positions, the Wildcats are again well-represented, with senior free safety Blake McClain (5-11, 200 pounds) and sophomore strong safety Mike Edwards (6-0, 200 pounds) roaming the deep middle. McClain, who is also the nickel back when the Wildcats go to five-DB sets, and he has recorded two interceptions in 2016 along with 22 tackles, one pass broken up, and three passes defended. Edwards is a force who contributes both in coverage and run support, as the heavy-hitting safety has been responsible for 31 tackles, two tackles for loss, six passes broken up, and six passes defended.

When McClain roles to the nickel position, he is replaced by reserve senior safety Marcus McWilson (6-0, 210 pounds), and McWilson is a solid enough option at safety. He has accounted for 19 tackles and half a sack this season.

It’s clear Kentucky has some athletes who should be able to put it all together and be competitive against opposing offenses. Still, the Wildcats’ struggles are well-documented this season, and Alabama will have a chance to take advantage of a defensive unit still struggling to find an identity.

How Kentucky Will Attack the Alabama Offense

Whether they line up in their 3-4 look, the traditional 4-3, or some configuration of the nickel, recent history would indicate that the Wildcats will struggle mightily with what the Tide offense brings to the table this Saturday.

After all, a run-based Southern Miss offense absolutely gashed the Wildcats on the ground. Luke Del Rio looked like Johnny Unitas in the first half of Florida’s game with the Wildcats, as Kentucky allowed an average of 528 yards of total offense per game through the first three contests of 2016 (good for 122nd out of 128 teams). Alabama can beat Kentucky with the ground game or through the air, and each of those poisons can be administered using a variety of techniques. Alabama can zone run behind a gelling offensive line, they can run read option with Hurts, they can screen the Wildcats to death on the edges, they can use play-action off of the run game to work receivers open on intermediate and deep routes. There are just so many ways the Alabama offense can adapt and attack any defense that it’s hard to imagine a set of circumstances that the Kentucky defense can have much success against Alabama.

Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot has struggled since following Stoops from Florida State (where he was the defensive line coach), and there’s no reason to believe that this season will be different from the last two. The Wildcats have been perennially bad under Eliot, so much so that after three terrible performances to start the season, Stoops himself has pledged to take a more active role in every aspect of the defense moving forward.

In fact, Stoops’ heavy hand on the till began last week versus South Carolina, and the immediate results were encouraging for the Kentucky faithful. Though South Carolina has a downright impotent offensive attack, the Wildcats held them to a mere 268 total yards of offense. Again, the Gamecock offense could just be that bad. But the fact that the Kentucky defense could stop the bleeding against an SEC foe has to be somewhat encouraging to those who bleed Kentucky blue.

Over the course of four games, the Wildcats have been pretty much equally liable in run and pass defense. The Wildcats allow 205 yards on the ground per game (4.1 yards per carry). Through the air, the Wildcats are giving up 258 yards per game for an average of 15 yards per completion. The defense as a whole has nabbed six interceptions, with three players (McClain, Harmon, and Baity) reeling in two a-piece. Unfortunately for the Wildcat pass rush, they only count eight sacks as a team, which is indicative of serious problems up front when it comes to disrupting the passer.

The Wildcats haven’t been particularly effective at preventing teams from marching the field on them, as evidenced by some of the above stats. What’s equally disturbing is the Wildcats’ red zone numbers, as Kentucky has allowed opponents to score on 15 of 17 trips to the red area (with 12 of those resulting in touchdowns).

The Alabama offense can be prepared to face a multiple defense not terribly unlike the one they face in practice each day (in scheme), but far much less talented and efficient. What Kentucky does have is phenomenal size up front, and Alabama’s offensive line will be in a four-quarter war of attrition while trying to push those big bodies around all evening.

That said, don’t expect the Kentucky pass rush to have much luck in hemming up Hurts. Greater defensive lines have tried and failed, and given the anemic sack numbers and absence of meaningful pressure on the quarterback in previous outings, it appears Hurts will have a chance to sit in the pocket and operate with a chance to work on reading his progressions and executing the passing game that Lane Kiffin ultimately wants to see him flex.

The Wildcat secondary is pretty solid over all, and as previously mentioned, they will represent one of the few defensive back fields that holds an overall size advantage over Alabama’s larger-framed receiving corps. Jump balls that may be there for Hurts in other games this season will be far more difficult to muster against a pair of starting corners who measure in at 6-3 and 6-4. However, the quickness of Calvin Ridley and Trevon Diggs could be pivotal here, as Alabama can employ shorter, sharper passes to playmakers in space, who can then use their speed to burn the lankier corners. Doing so takes the height out of the equation to a degree, and uses the speed and shiftiness of Alabama receivers to a major advantage.

Typically, the Wildcats try to create pressure on the QB with blitz packages that bring linebackers after the girth in the middle compresses the pocket. But with Hurts and his athleticism, such would be ill-advised against Alabama, as he has demonstrated that he can use his running ability to torch linebackers in pursuit.

Kentucky may have some success at short-circuiting the Tide’s between-the-tackles running game early on, as it will be difficult to move Elam and Middleton off of the ball. Expect Alabama to pivot to the screen and sweep game if this happens, attempting instead to move the action of the play to the edges, forcing the bigger tackles to run themselves ragged, in much the same way as the Tide did against Ole Miss two weeks ago.

The biggest must for Kentucky to have half a chance is a consistent pass rush that gets effective pressure on the quarterback. If Hurts is flustered, if he is often flushed and forced to make decisions on the move, Alabama won’t get exactly what Kiffin wants from the defense. It won’t be a disaster, but it won’t be optimal. If the pass rush cannot pressure Hurts, then the excellent Wildcat corners will be left in space to cover Bama’s phenomenal WRs, thus stressing the secondary and leaving the door open for busted coverages and big plays for the Tide offense.

Ultimately, with Stoops calling the shots on defense this week, expect more pressure-generating tactics, more blitzes from unusual vectors. The old defensive coach has to find a way to ignite some sort of urgency in the pass rush, or else his defense will likely be shelled once against by an Alabama offensive unit with talent to spare.

The Result

In brief, Alabama should have little trouble imposing its will on a Kentucky defense that while maybe not the worst in the history of college football, is definitely on the lower end of the spectrum for the SEC conference.

Alabama will start out slow, with Kiffin’s typical probing early on to find the weak link in the Wildcat offense. That weak link is likely to be found in the front seven, which features many new faces. Don’t expect Alabama to challenge the Kentucky secondary outright, at least not in the early going. Alabama’s recent outings indicate that Kiffin is comfortable allowing Hurts to run zone read RPOs with short passes and screens the most likely available options through the air. The dink-and-dunk screens, outs, and slants aren’t necessarily sexy, but they are extremely effective at moving the ball, especially when there are likely mismatches with linebackers or safeties covering Alabama’s elite receivers and tight end O.J. Howard.

Just as Alabama has done against previous Power 5 opponents, expect the Tide to work those lateral plays early to spread the defense and let them run their legs down a bit. Once the defense begins to cheat to the edges, Alabama will come back with the inside zone (or outside zone, depending on the call) blocking schemes that can break Alabama’s stellar backs free in the middle. The middle of the Alabama offensive line is still a work in progress, and they’ll have their hands full with Kentucky’s big tackles this week. But as those tackles tire and the front seven loosens to defend Alabama’s spread tendencies, there will be room for the shifty Josh Jacobs and B.J. Emmons to scoot to daylight. And woe be it for the Wildcats if after tiring the defensive front, Alabama begins to bang with Bo Scarbrough.

In reality, the best the Wildcats can hope for is that with Stoops’ active participation, they can get a few key stops in the first half and make a good showing out of it. After surrendering 45 points to an exponentially less explosive Florida offense, it appears Alabama will have little trouble picking a weapon and using it to dispatch the Wildcats.