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Key Juniors Ready to Boost Kentucky’s Defense

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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A different type of youth movement, with underclassmen on defense transitioning to upperclassmen, will be critical to the Wildcats' overall success.

Experience, in college football, can often be a conduit for success. For Kentucky, a strong core of rising juniors, fresh off notable sophomore production, are poised to lead a potential defensive charge. A different type of youth movement, with underclassmen on defense transitioning to upperclassmen, will be critical to the Wildcats' overall success this fall.

Exactly two SEC players return after at least 100 total tackles in 2016; they both play in Lexington. Juniors Jordan Jones and Mike Edwards are back after combining for 209 stops a year ago, with second-team all-conference honors boosting their respective profiles. Jones, Edwards, linebacker Josh Allen, corners Derrick Baity and Chris Westry, end Denzil Ware and tackle Adrian Middleton are among those who help make up a group of up-and-coming veterans for Kentucky.

Jones is one of the league's more dynamic talents. The son of a former Ohio State defensive end and a former four-star recruit, Jones led the conference with 74 solo tackles last season. Fittingly, he had a career-high 19 stops in his first-ever start. Impressively, Jones is also the SEC's returning leader with 15.5 tackles for loss, more than recent number one overall NFL Draft pick Myles Garrett just had, for point of reference. 

Since a pick-six versus Charlotte late in his freshman season, Edwards has been a key playmaker in the secondary for the Wildcats. In addition to leading all league defensive backs in tackles, his eleven passes defended were the second-most for any sophomore in the league this past year, behind only All-American Minkah Fitzpatrick of Alabama. Edwards recorded two interceptions in Kentucky's upset win over rival Louisville.

With this junior class, there is more to get excited about than just Jones and Edwards. The versatile Ware, another former four-star prospect, led all conference linemen with 70 stops a season ago, adding 12 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks. Allen tied for the SEC lead with four forced fumbles. Baity intercepted three passes and defended a total of ten. Westry is a former Freshman All-American. Middleton was honored by the conference for a standout performance in a late-October win over Missouri.

Collectively, program juniors are ready to team with senior Courtney Love and company to give Mark Stoops his best big blue unit yet. 

More progress is needed for the Wildcats as Kentucky's placement of 9th in the league in total defense this past season was its highest finish since 2010. A year older and wiser, this talented group is poised for such improvement.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports