After a very efficient run at creating sacks, the bottom fell out in 2020. The Wildcats finished the season ranked 113th nationally in sack rate as the defense only produced 15 sacks in 11 games. A lot of that starts with an ineffective edge rush.
For whatever reason, the Wildcats struggled to get quarterbacks on the ground and create consistent pressure last season. That was exasperated by having to play three of the top 10 passing offenses — Alabama, Florida, Ole Miss — in just 11 games. However, there are reasons to feel optimistic heading into 2021.
Kentucky has major depth issues, but the talent leading the room has a chance to be special. After touching on the defensive line, we’re moving over to Brad White’s position group to see how the outside linebackers can bounce back in 2021.
Jordan Wright: The former top-500 recruit from South Florida is entering his redshirt season with plenty of production. Wright has played in 33 career games with 76 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, six pass breakups, four forced fumbles, and two defensive touchdowns. Wright has stuffed the stat sheet, but the veteran is looking to do it more consistently. Wright can play both Jack and Sam while the Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Dillard prospect is looking to be a position leader this fall.
“He has been a playmaker for us the last two years,” White told reporters during spring practice. “He’s made some really splashy sort of game-changing plays. And the big thing for him — I’ve challenged him — is to be that consistent, steady force. He’s also got to be the leader of that outside linebacker room. Other than him, it is fairly inexperienced. He’s taken that role on. I’m proud of him for that.”
J.J. Weaver: This is the big elephant in the room. Weaver was a blue-chip recruit out of Louisville (Ky.) Moore High that tore his ACL on Thanksgiving weekend in the loss to Florida. The redshirt sophomore missed all of spring. Before that, Weaver had an excellent season recording 33 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss but there wasn’t much production as a pass rusher. All things point to the rehab process going well, but we are unsure when to truly expect the redshirt sophomore back at full speed.
K.D. McDaniel: Entering his redshirt sophomore season, McDaniel has played in just nine games through his first two seasons. The outside linebacker has recorded four total tackles while trying to find his way. The Tifton (Ga.) Tift County product has great positional size — 250 pounds — and could be a force in the run game. Now he just needs to put everything together as he makes the move to Jack linebacker.
“When I recruited him, long-term vision for him was Jack,” White said about McDaniel during spring practice. “I think he’s more comfortable at that position, but from a position of need his first two years I needed him to play Sam. I needed him out there to the field to backup Boog [Boogie Watson], but now he’s going to rep primarily there into the boundary — get to use his twitch because he’s a guy that has twitch in the pass rush. Him and Jordan Wright will be able to rotate.”
Justice Dingle: The Bowling Green, Ky., native has returned to his home state after spending his first three seasons at Georgia Tech. Out of the class of 2018, Dingle was a top-600 prospect who was ranked as a top-five player in the state. After playing on the defensive line for the Yellow Jackets, Dingle is making the move to outside linebacker in Kentucky’s odd-man front. In just 19 career games, the transfer has forced three fumbles.
Marquez Bembry: A junior college transfer in the class of 2019, Bembry enters year three in the program and is making a position change. After playing inside linebacker his first two seasons, the Georgia native and former Tennessee commitment will slide out to the edge. Bembry played a lot of football for the team last season with two starts against Alabama and Vanderbilt to go along with 27 tackles. At 6-foot-3 and 232 pounds, Bembry projects to be a Sam linebacker.