While the Kentucky offense has left a bit to be desired over the course of the 2020 season, their defense has been one of the better units in the SEC, holding Mississippi State to 2 points, Tennessee to 7 points, and Georgia to 14. Like Alabama, though, they got absolutely shredded by Ole Miss and the Lane Kiffin offense for 42 points. It wasn’t pretty, but that can be forgiven.
What can’t be forgiven is giving up 35 points to Vanderbilt last week. That’s.... Not good. When you almost blow a game against one of the worse Vanderbilt teams of the last decade, there’s bound to be some unrest.
Overall, though, they’re only giving up 23 points per game, 6.5 yards per pass, and an outstanding 3.8 yards per rush.
Defensive coordinator Brad White enters his second season as a playcaller after spending the first few years of his career coaching pass rushers with the Indianapolis Colts. His 2019 season saw the Wildcats hold every single opponent to less than 30 points and were at top 20 defense nationally in almost every category, and nearly every starter returned for the 2020 season.
White runs a true 3-4 defense with a focus on featuring linebackers rushing the passer from nearly any position on any given play. Along the defensive line, nose guard Marquan McCall is a 380-lb mountain of a man occupying that old “Terrance Cody” role that Alabama fans will remember from the early Saban years. 6th year senior Phil Hoskins occupies the shaded interior tackle role, and junior Josh Paschal is a big defensive end.
They’re a huge trio with decent athleticism, and backup nose guard Quinton Bohanna has some surprising speed on 3rd down pass rushes for a 350-lb guy.
The linebackers are what makes this defense go, though. Outside edge rusher Boogie Watson was a preseason All-SEC selection after notching 12 TFL and 6.5 sacks last year, and is one of the more highly thought of edge rushers in the nation.
Veteran Jordan Wright and the young and hyper-athletic J.J. Weaver alternate for the opposite outside spot, but I expect Weaver to supplant Wright more and more as the season wears on.
Both outside backer spots play up close to the line of scrimmage on most plays, though they rarely actually put their hand on the ground like a true defensive end. The end result is a 5-man front more often than not, with one defensive tackle leaving the game if they bring in a nickel defensive back.
Inside linebackers Jamin Davis and DeAndre Square are your typical do-it-all guys who are more than happy to blitz and rush the passer or clobber some poor receiver trying to catch a ball across the middle.
In the secondary, the Wildcats are fairly multiple, though they tend to play with a cover 6 zone more often than anything else. CB Kelvin Joseph (a former LSU transfer and one of the only new starters on defense) likes to play press coverage and will man up on his guy or play a short zone, while the safeties and outside corner on the other side all drop into deep zones.
Strong safety Tyrell Aijan and free safety Yusuf Corker are the best-named duo in all of college football, and also were both once fairly high-rated recruits (for Kentucky). They can both play deep coverage or come up and make tackles, so the Wildcats try to keep them moving around and not doing the same thing too predictably.
While the Wildcat offense might remind Alabama fans of the 2016 Alabama offense, this defense will bring back shades of the 2009 Alabama formations with a massive nose tackle.
They’ll have two goals for this game: Slow down Najee Harris and prevent the deep shot. With the senior experience and general talent in the front 7, I expect they’ll perform better against Alabama’s rushing attack than nearly anyone else on the schedule. And if Watson can generate a pass rush while they play deep zones, it may be a long day for Mac Jones if he’s determined to hit deep shots.
However, Mac and Steve Sarkisian have shown many times this season and the last few games of last season that they’re more than willing to patiently gash a defense with the horizontal passing game. While they’ve overdone that at times (like against Michigan), I think that it will be the key this week to dismantling the Kentucky defense. Their linebackers are built for attacking near the line of scrimmage, so going horizontal and hitting those Tua-style RPO slants should be ripe for the taking all game long until the safeties start cheating up. Then you can hit John Metchie over the top to salt away the game.