D.J. Eliot, third season at Kentucky and as a coordinator
D.J. Eliot, linebackers; Derrick Ansley, secondary; Andy Buh, outside linebackers; Jimmy Brumbaugh, defensive line; Jonathan Cooley, graduate assistant
Kentucky finished 11th in the Southeastern Conference and 77th in the nation in total defense, allowing 406.9 yards a game. The Cats allowed opponents to average 31.3 points a game last season, second most in the league.
RETURNING STARTERS (9)
Melvin Lewis, defensive lineman; Josh Forrest, middle linebacker; Ryan Flannigan, weakside linebacker; Jason Hatcher, linebacker/defensive end; Fred Tiller, cornerback; A.J. Stamps, safety; Marcus McWilson, safety; Blake McClain, nickel; Cody Quinn, cornerback
WHAT TO WATCH
A lack of defensive depth and inexperience at key positions started to show itself fully down the stretch as UK played eight straight games against top-level opponents. The Cats like the center of their defense in nose guard Melvin Lewis, linebackers Josh Forrest and Ryan Flannigan as well as safety A.J. Stamps, but they are trying to bring along some young, inexperienced players on the periphery to replace Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith and likely upgrade some at the cornerback spots.
For the second straight season, UK was last in the league in stopping opponents on third down (allowing them to convert 43.7 percent of the time). Can the Cats find a way to get off the field? Is there enough depth at the linebacker and defensive end spots? Will the young but sizable cornerbacks become difference makers quickly? Will UK be able to replace Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith with scheme and youth?
While the offense seems to have the depth and breadth of talent to make a difference this season, it’s just too soon to tell on the defensive side of the ball. UK has lots of talent down the middle, but the Cats will be expecting big things from younger, inexperienced players almost immediately. The overall depth and athleticism looks better than a year ago, but many players at key positions will be learning on the job.