Mark Stoops laid the foundation for Kentucky to develop a defensive identity and Brad White has built the Wildcats into one of the most dominant units in the Southeastern Conference. It’s become the norm, but this year’s group is different in all of the right ways.
What exactly makes this defense so difficult to gameplan against? First and foremost, they are a physical group that plays with a nasty mentality. Brute force will take you places, but only so far. Georgia head coach Kirby Smart described what White does schematically that challenges opposing offensive coordinators and quarterbacks.
“The defense they run is very unique. You don’t play a lot of teams like them,” Smart said Monday. “They have a lot of overhangs, what I call depth in the defense. They have people at the second level all over the defense, so there’s not a lot of free yards out there. They make you earn everything you get.”
The scheme Kentucky deploys is not brand new. Their physical identity has been built over years and years. There’s something else this defense does that separates this group from their predecessors.
Defensive Balance with Playmakers Everywhere
We’ve seen tackling machines wear Kentucky uniforms (Danny Trevathan in particular comes to mind). Josh Allen created chaos during his 2018 Defensive Player of the Year campaign. This defense does not rely on one or two players to do the heavy lifting.
Kentucky has 14 sacks (No. 5 in the SEC) and nine forced turnovers (No. 3 in the SEC). Eight Kentucky Wildcats have tallied sacks and five players have multiple. Three different Wildcats have picked off passes and four others have recovered fumbles.
This is not by coincidence. White is preaching a message of patience. Do your job and the plays will come. It worked for J.J. Weaver and Alex Afari on Saturday. After coming close so many times, Weaver finally got a sack that put Florida well behind the chains in the fourth quarter. A few plays later, Afari was ready when his number was called, making a crucial fourth down tackle, one of his nine against the Gators.
“(Afari)’s doing what we are asking him to do,” White said after the Kentucky win. “Again, there’s been some games where he’s made mistakes that we’ve tried to clean up. But just like we talk about with all of our guys, the plays will come to you…
“…Don’t press, your plays are going to come. That was a huge fourth down stop. He’s in man-to-man coverage on the tight end on fourth and four, and keeps him short. A lot of times tight ends make you miss on those tackles on an under route like that. I’m proud of him.”
The depth on the defensive line is also paying dividends. Deone Walker receives a lot of attention from the press, and rightfully so, but that attention is also drawing extra blockers. His teammates are taking advantage of the one-on-one situations Walker is creating.
“D-Hen (Darrion Henry-Young) is stepping up. Ox is stepping up. Every game it’s somebody. Obviously Deone plays such a massive role for us in there and he affects so much. I thought Keeshawn (Silver) made plays. Josaih (Hayes) did a really nice job.” White added, “I think they’re playing well.”
Former Wildcat Van Hiles is the best at cutting up plays, but if you don’t like curse words, sorry.
I tried to told yall… pic.twitter.com/k27kRWuILv— Van Hiles (@vstyles17) October 1, 2023
Kentucky Defense does not get Rattled
Sometimes football happens. The opponents are on scholarship too. Defensive players must have the mental capacity to quickly move on to the next play.
Near the end of the first half Florida wide receiver Caleb Douglass made an outstanding 36-yard catch to get the Gators down to the one-yard line. Andru Phillips was in position, but lost the rep. Mark Stoops was proud of the way the cornerback responded.
“I love the way he didn’t blink,” Stoops said Monday. “He felt like he had a good idea where that ball was going. The player from Florida made a great catch and Dru didn’t get off on the right foot as far as his timing. He can play it better than that, he will, but he didn’t flinch. He knew, he came right back and played and made some big plays for us the rest of the game.”
On Florida’s final drive of the game Phillips made a tackle on third down. The Gators were stopped on the next play, ending the game.
This Kentucky defense is special because they are resilient.
“I’m proud of the guys. I thought they played hard, played with a lot of intensity, but stayed really level-headed throughout. That was something we talked about. There’s going to be ebbs and flows in the game,” White said Saturday afternoon.
“You go into half and they score, kind of like last week. Then we come out of half and unlike last week, they drove down and scored. It was kind of an unlucky play. It’s fourth and three, we got him sacked, and the kid made an incredible play. Then Etienne made an unbelievable job to get the first down. Then they ran the over route, we had it covered, then on the scramble we dropped it and her got free.
“Things right there can fall apart on you. There can be two drives in a row where some unlucky stuff happened. We missed the sack on the start of the two-minute drive before half. So you can look around and say, ‘uh oh.’ Or you can say, ‘those things happen.’ Missed tackles are going to happen sometimes. a guy’s gonna miss a sack. One of their players is going to make a phenomenal play. Andru Phillips made an unbelievable deep ball break up and their kid made a great play. It happens. I love how he responded. You think about that tackle he made to force fourth down on the last drive that we’re on.
“I’m just really proud of these guys. They’re playing so steady. They’re playing for each other and it makes them so much fun to coach.”