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Kentucky's defense will return most of its starters in 2018, but will the unit improve?

Kentucky football: How much better will veteran defense be next season?

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It’s been quite a week for Kentucky football’s defense. First was the news Monday that junior outside linebacker Josh Allen was returning for his senior season. Then on Tuesday, safety Mike Edwards announced that he was returning for his final season.

Junior linebackers Denzil Ware and Jordan Jones are wild cards, but it’d be a little surprising if either decided to leave. Ware’s status is trickier to predict given his suspension from the Music City Bowl.

After the season it seemed quite likely that at least one, and maybe two, of those four players would declare for the draft. Now it’s likely that all will be back. For the sake of this story, let’s operate under the assumption that Ware and Jones will be on the roster next season.

Where does that leave Kentucky’s starting defense for next season? That’s our question of the day.

I haven’t done thorough research, but I assume that it’d be hard to find a team that’ll return a more veteran defense than Kentucky in 2018.

Let’s run through a quick positional recap.

Defensive line

Kentucky returns all three starters on the defensive front.

Defensive tackle Adrian Middleton will be a senior, and backup Kordell Looney will be a sophomore. Middleton started all 13 games last season.

Quinton Bohanna was a breakout freshman at nose guard, jumping seniors Matt Elam and Naquez Pringle on the depth chart mid-season. Bohanna, who started Kentucky’s final five games, figures to be better as sophomore. Elam and Pringle graduated, but Phil Hoskins is an option to plug any need on the D-line.

T.J. Carter and Kengera Daniel, Kentucky’s first- and second-team defensive ends, will be entering their junior and senior seasons, respectively. Carter started every game at defensive end. Calvin Taylor saw action in 10 games.

Linebackers

Kentucky should return three of its four starting linebackers with middle linebacker Courtney Love as the only departure.

Ware should return as a senior starter at the outside linebacker/defensive end slot. He was second on the team behind Allen in sacks and tackles for loss. The veteran starter was backed up by super freshman Josh Paschal. Expect the coaching staff to find a number of ways to get Paschal more snaps as a sophomore.

Allen is the surprise returner at the other outside linebacker spot. He was Kentucky’s top pass rusher and will be one of Kentucky’s top three defensive players next season. Jamar “Boogie” Watson returns as Allen’s backup, but he has the flexibility to play inside linebacker as well.

More experience returns at weakside linebacker with Jones expected to come back for his senior season. Jones is unpredictable and prone to personal fouls, but he’s still one of Kentucky’s top defensive players. Eli Brown, his backup, started four games when Jones was dealing with a shoulder injury.

And that leaves the biggest question in the linebackers corps: Who replaces Love at middle linebacker? Junior Kash Daniel is the favorite. Daniel played more as a freshman than he did as a sophomore, but he has the most experience to fill Love’s absence.

Secondary

Veteran corners Derrick Baity and Chris Westry have been starters since their freshman seasons, bringing loads of experience to the defensive backfield as seniors. Lonnie Johnson, who also will be a senior, started over Westry at the end of the season. Jordan Griffin will add depth at corner and can play nickel.

Edwards, who most would describe as Kentucky’s top defensive player, will anchor the defense at strong safety. He led the team with 96 tackles in 2017. Darius West, who stayed healthy last season, will return as the starting free safety. Davonte Robinson will also be in the mix at safety.

Tobias Gilliam, Cedrick Dort and Marcus Walker are all likely to find themselves in the defensive back rotation.

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That’s 10 defensive starters likely to return. There are a couple ways to look at this.

Getting Allen and Edwards back must’ve been one of Mark Stoops’ priorities after the season ended. Both were likely to get drafted, but now they’ll return to a Kentucky defense that’s loaded with experience.

But experience doesn’t equal success. Kentucky is likely to return 10 starters on a defense that ranked 93rd in the nation, surrendering 427 yards per game. The Cats were 79th against the run and 103rd against the pass.

A Kentucky defense with Edwards and Allen is undeniably better than one without them. It’s just not clear if all the returning experience will result in a drastic on-field improvement.

RELATED: See our answers to previous questions of the day here