Mark Stoops officially has 10 assistant coaches on his staff. The Kentucky defense has just as many unofficial coaches in 2022.
The Wildcats’ veteran-laden defense has propelled Brad White’s group to a point typically reserved for the final days of training camp. Kentucky’s defensive coordinator has installed more concepts and made more complex calls because he can rely on a number of experienced players to execute.
“This defensive unit has a chance to do something special, because we have a good mixture of old guys and young guys,” White said at UK football media day.
Stressing the importance of veteran leadership is nothing new. It’s written annually about dozens of programs across the country. This year’s Wildcats can feel the difference in camp. Jordan Wright has only seen something one other time in Lexington, when he was a freshman in 2018. As White noted last week, Wright is one of a handful of players that played significant snaps on that historic defense. The others are Ty Ajian and DeAndre Square, a trio that holds the defense accountable at all times.
“The coaches really don’t say too much,” said redshirt sophomore Tre’vonn Rybka. “It’s a trust thing. Coach Stoops trusts our leaders to lead us. That’s how I look at it. We don’t really need too much from the coaches to tell us what to do because we know what we’re doing.”
What exactly does a player-led defense look like? Allow Jordan Wright to explain.
“One day in practice we had a blitz going on and JJ (Weaver) and Square were communicating about what those two were going to do. Because they were on the same page, it was beautiful,” said Wright. “We made a stop and everything. Talking with everybody on the same page, the sky’s the limit.”
John Calipari’s frequent use of the phrase “player empowerment” has diminished the meaning of it to many Kentucky fans. However, something is clearly cooking on the Kentucky defense. In the first week of camp we’ve heard the multiple comparisons to the 2018 group. That’s not just lip service.
Late Season Momentum Helps Young Defensive Linemen
The vets fill up most of the back half of the defense. Up front it’s all newcomers. The Kentucky defense will break in new starters across the entire defensive line. Even though they’re young, it’s a deep group. Brad White is asking Kahlil Saunders to elevate his game and prove he can rotate into the lineup regularly at defensive tackle. After tallying a tackle for loss in each of the final two games of his true freshman season, he’s ready to seize the opportunity.
“It just gave me more confidence coming into camp because I know I can play,” he said this week. “I just gotta keep working hard.”
Kentucky needs even more from Rybka. He has the tall task of filling Josh Paschal’s big shoes. As Paschal’s backup, he knew that Josh was going to get all of the shine. This week he admitted that Paschal’s departure forced him to grow up in a hurry.
“I would say I was locked in, but not as much as I should have been because with Josh playing all the time. Coming in that changed me because I know that now I am where I need to be. I’m at that step where I can take it and I’m ready for it,” Rybka said.
“He was a big piece of the defense. He always kept everybody going, everybody motivated. It’s a big miss, but we gotta step up. That’s what we’re doing, trying to step up to replace him.”
This offseason Rybka got serious in the weight room. The scale did not dramatically change, but he is stronger than ever before. A twitchy defensive end, run defense has always been the weak link for Rybka. He stepped up and made a big play behind the line of scrimmage in the Citrus Bowl on third and short. That big play affirmed that he can be a reliable run-stuffer.
“I struggled with that. Coming in and playing the run, that’s always been hard for me because it’s new. Now I can feel how strong I am is really helping me play the run because that’s our standard. You know we love to play the run here. Getting stronger, that really helped me out a lot so I can control the gap better, get off and do everything I need to do.”