Ex-Cats

Two former Kentucky football stars among the NFL’s elite pass rushers

Two college football programs have each produced two of the NFL’s top-10 quarterback sacks leaders this season.

No surprise that one of those is Ohio State with brothers Joey and Nick Bosa having seven each so far.

The other is Kentucky.

Jacksonville Jaguars rookie Josh Allen is off to a stellar start to his career with seven QB sacks through eight games. And Za’Darius Smith, who is playing his first season with the Green Bay Packers, has eight and ranks behind only Tampa Bay’s Shaquil Barrett (10), Cleveland’s Myles Garrett (10) and Arizona’s Chandler Jones (8.5).

Allen, who didn’t have a sack in his first two games, has been on a roll of late with at least one sack the past four games. He added two to his total in the Jaguars’ 29-15 win over the New York Jets on Sunday. He also forced a fumble while harassing Sam Darnold throughout the contest.

“I just wanted to let him feel me,” Allen said, according to an ESPN report, about his first big play Sunday. “Sack or no sack, I just wanted to hit him and just to be like, ‘We’re coming every play. I don’t care where you’re at. I don’t care how you’re getting out, we’re going to hit you every play.’”

Allen is well on his way to becoming the franchise’s rookie sacks record-holder (eight by teammate Yannick Ngakoue in 2016) and has a shot at breaking the NFL’s rookie sacks record (14.5 by Jevon Kearse in 1999), too.

“That’s not my goal,” Allen said, according to ESPN. “It’s a good achievement for myself, but my goal is to win a lot of games. … Those are the good achievements for my team so if it happens, it happens.”

Some more stats for Allen: 23 tackles, eight tackles for loss totaling 49 yards, and two forced fumbles.

“The thing that I appreciate, the one that hasn’t changed, is his desire or his effort,” Jaguars Coach Doug Marrone said ahead of last weekend’s game. “He just has great effort, goes full-go, does everything you want.

“So, that’s what I’m saying — when the technique, and the experience, and all this stuff is starting to come in, and you’re healthy, someone like him can really be a heck of a football player.”

Smith, who spent four years with the Baltimore Ravens before joining the Packers as a free agent, is easily having the best season of his career.

His eight sacks have come a season after he had a career-high 8.5 in 2018.

Teaming with fellow free-agent edge rusher acquisition Preston Smith (no relation), who has seven sacks, Za’Darius Smith and the Packers are off to a 7-1 start. That includes Sunday night’s 31-24 win at Kansas City, in which he had two QB sacks and four total tackles.

Smith, who has quickly become a team leader and has made his sack celebrations something to look forward to, is clearly enjoying his move to the Packers. In a video the team posted to Twitter shortly after Sunday’s victory, he was seen taking a video of himself celebrating with teammates and fans.

“Hey, Green Bay, what’s happening?” he yelled. “We’re 7-1, baby! … Wonderful feeling, baby.”

The Ringer reported before Sunday’s game about the culture shift that the Smiths have helped bring to the Packers after last year’s dismal season.

“I don’t mean to be broad or vague,” star quarterback Aaron Rodgers said, “but the energy of those two especially is contagious. To be specific, it’s a charisma. And not everybody has that. When you’re around those people, there’s a magnetic quality where they attract you into a conversation. There’s a smile, there’s a positivity. You just kind of want to be around it more.”

Allen and Smith aren’t the only former Kentucky defensive stars stepping up for their respective NFL teams this season.

Chicago Bears linebacker Danny Trevathan is tied for 16th in the league in total tackles (61). His 47 solo tackles is tied for fifth.

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Bud Dupree has four sacks and six tackles for loss. His career high of six sacks came two seasons ago.

Wesley Woodyard, a Tennessee Titans linebacker who has been a team captain in all 12 of his NFL seasons, has made 22 tackles.

Defensive tackle Corey Peters, a team captain for the Arizona Cardinals, has 2.5 sacks.

Houston Texans rookie Lonnie Johnson, a cornerback, has 27 tackles and five passes defended while starting six of eight games.

Mike Edwards, a rookie safety with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has 16 tackles with one for a loss to go with two passes defensed.

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Dennis Varney is the assistant sports editor for the Lexington Herald-Leader and Kentucky.com. He is a Pike County native and Western Kentucky alum. He has also worked at The Times of Northwest Indiana, The Seattle Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
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