"Bud and Z ain't walking through that door."Since Kentucky's terrific pass rushing twosome departed after the 2014 season, the defense has never been the same. It's not just that they are tackling fewer people behind the line of scrimmage, they've literally changed the defense. After an abysmal 2015 season from the outside, Mark Stoops and D.J. Eliot are searching for new solutions to the pass rush problem.
"We're starting over." - Denzil WareYou weren't the only ones screaming from home or the stands in Commonwealth Stadium, "WHERE'S THE PRESSURE? HE HAS ALL DAY TO THROW!" The Cats were near the bottom of Division I with only 17 sacks and 53 tackles for loss last season. Jason Hatcher was supposed to help fill Bud and Z's void, but his presence was rarely felt until he was kicked off the tam this offseason. Things only got worse in '15 after Melvin Lewis was lost for the season to injury. Eliot's defense morphed into a "multiple" front with varied 3/4 looks, attempting exotic blitzes from nickels and corners to create pressure with the outside primarily being held down by a career reserve (Jabari Johnson) and a redshirt freshman (Denzil Ware). "I think that position is very difficult. There's many different nuances that get thrown at that position every day, so experience is key," Stoops said earlier this spring. There isn't a ton of experience, but there's more experience. Denzil Ware doesn't consider himself a veteran, "I'm far from that," but his first season as a full-time starter at outside linebacker was fairly successful. He had 5.5 tackles for loss, a sack and a 2-point conversion returned for a touchdown that sealed a victory at South Carolina. The game is starting to come to him much easier. Stoops sees Ware growing up, especially when attacking the passer. "I like what he's doing. He's an explosive guy. I think he's getting better when we turn him loose and getting after the quarterbacks and rushing the passer. He's better in that area." [caption id="attachment_197439" align="alignnone" width="600"] Ware's sole sack of the season vs. South Carolina via Travis Bell, Sideline Carolina.[/caption] Another player who's experienced growth is Josh Allen. Not just mentally, he's grown from 209 pounds to near 235. The true freshman showed a ton of speed off the edge last year in a reserve role, but he was limited by his size. "I'm ready right now. I'm ready to just compete with everybody. I don't care who it is. I'm ready to compete, and I feel like I can hold my own," Allen said earlier this week. Allen didn't have a lot of weapons in his repertoire when he came to Lexington. "When I first got here, I was just fast off the edge. That was all I used really." He learned the hard way as a true freshman, building on that this offseason. "Now I've worked on on my techniques," he said. "If you be consistent in what you do -- good hand placement, if you read your man -- you can win anytime." That was the case during the first scrimmage. He had not one sack, not two, but three for the second team. "It felt great. It felt so great," Allen said. "After you get that one, you think you can do it every time."
"It feels good to be back in the mix." - Kobie WalkerKobie Walker came to Kentucky as a 3-star recruit in 2014. The DMV product was expected to be an elite outside athlete. Two years later, we still haven't seen him on the field. That changed last Saturday. After struggling through shoulder injuries, it could finally be Kobie's time to shine. "I see a guy who is very comfortable on his feet," Stoops said. "He’s good in space and he’s very explosive." That explosiveness was evident last Saturday. I saw a blur of white in the backfield pick up the running back in blue and slam him into the ground two yards behind the line of scrimmage. It was followed by a roar from #8. I had to double-check the roster. "Kobie Walker? Wow." That flash was impressive, but he still has plenty of room for improvement. He can become a consistent contributor if he continues to take steps forward this spring. "He needs to be more physical and he’s getting more physical with blocks at the point of attack," Stoops said. "It will be fun to watch him for the rest of this spring and see how he progresses." [caption id="attachment_197443" align="alignnone" width="600"] Big Blue Insider[/caption]
"We’ve got to find the right spot for him." - Mark StoopsThe most curious addition to Kentucky's potential pass rush in 2016 is Minnesota transfer De'Niro Laster. A middle linebacker for the Golden Gophers, he had 6 tackles and a half TFL as a true freshman before the Cleveland native decided he'd be more comfortable with Stoops' staff. He created havoc on the scout team last year. He's done the same this spring. “De’Niro brings the pop,” Ware said with a smile on his face. “He likes the contact. He likes the pass rush. He likes to meet them right there at the line. He’s real physical.” Laster doesn't deny it, "I love being physical." He almost loves it too much. Coach Buh will frequently scold him for using his pads too much instead of his hands. Splitting time at outside linebacker has shown Laster a new love for the game -- attacking the quarterback. "One of the pros that I love about playing outside linebacker is getting after the quarterback. I feel like that's one of my specialties," he said. He's different than the other linebackers. "Most of our outside backers on our team are defensive ends we’ve converted to outside linebacker, but De’Niro was an inside backer that we’ve converted to outside backer," Eliot said. "He has the ability to cover well. He has the ability to play in space, which is important at that position.” Laster may move back inside, he may remain outside. The good thing is that the coaches have all spring to figure it out. Jordan Jones and Eli Brown have earned praise for their play at inside along with Courtney Love. "I’m anxious to see how we progress here through spring and see how he does. I have high hopes for him and we’ve got to make sure we put him in the right spot," Stoops said.
We don't know what the defense will look like this fall. There are many moving parts and plenty of young pieces. The talent is there, and the talent is hungry. "They're going to see a hard-nosed, tough football team. They're going to see some guys that want to win. They're going to see players that want to get the job done," Ware said.