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South Carolina Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp impressed with Kentucky’s ‘active’ defense

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

Prior to becoming a head coach, Will Muschamp had a reputation as one of the top defensive coordinators in college football.

Muschamp once coached defensive backs at Eastern Kentucky University before going on to LSU, Miami Dolphins, Auburn and Texas to serve as the top defensive boss at all four stops. Following a four-year stint as head coach at Florida, he returned to Auburn for one season before taking over at South Carolina three years ago.

Muschamp has been impressed with Kentucky’s defensive unit through the first four games. The 17th-ranked Wildcats (4-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) haven’t allowed a score in the second half this season and rank seventh in the nation in scoring defense at 13.3 points per game. The Wildcats are 11th in the country in total defense at 279.5 yards per game. Kentucky is ranked second in the league in scoring defense.

Kentucky linebacker Kash Daniel, left, celebrates with defensive back Tyrell Ajian after he made an interception in the fourth quarter of last week’s 28-7 win over Mississippi State. (Photo by Bill Thiry, Kentucky Today)

“(They’re) very active,” Muschamp said earlier this week. “They play the way you are supposed to play. They’ve got eight senior starters so they’re very experienced. They’re very active at the linebacker position, especially Jordan Jones. He’s a very instinctive player, and I think Josh Allen is probably an elite rusher, one of the better rushers in our league and certainly the country.

“They’ve got a lot of guys who can make a difference. They get their hands on a lot of balls in the secondary, a lot of length and they run extremely well. They’ve recruited extremely well on that side of the ball.”

Muschamp said the Wildcats “play very good complementary football” in all three phases of the game and it shows on tape.

“I think it’s a very complete team (when) you look at the offense, defense and special teams and how they play,” he said. “You’ve got to credit Mark (Stoops) and his staff.”

A big difference-maker for the Wildcats on the defensive side of the ball has been the improvement of Jones, who has elevated his maturity level on the field this season at the linebacker slot. Jones made several big plays down the stretch in last week’s 28-7 win over Mississippi State.

“I’m glad I’m finally not getting penalties (and I’m) playing the game how it’s supposed to be played,” he said. “I’m doing it for my boys.”

The Kentucky coaching staff and Stoops never lost faith in Jones despite his past struggles and a “few episodes where he can get a little off.”

“Jordan has definitely matured,” Stoops said. “Jordan is one of those kids that means well 95 percent of the time. He really does. … It’s our job to get him back on the rails. … This past week was probability, arguably, one of the best games he’s played. Not because of the tackles or production, but because of the discipline he played with, within the defense. He still showed up to make critical plays when we needed it.”

As for the team’s lack of respect through the first four games, Jones said the undefeated Wildcats “keep proving people wrong.” Kentucky was an underdog at Florida earlier this year and also picked by many to lose prior to the victory over the Bulldogs last week at Kroger Field. They are a slight favorite against the Gamecocks but opened the week as an underdog, despite a four-game winning streak over the Gamecocks.

“I don’t know what else we must prove,” he said. “We still have a long season to go and we’re not done yet.”

Another big reason behind the team’s success has been because of a shift in the culture that noticeably began nearly three years ago. It’s a turnaround that has resulted in two straight postseason appearances. The Wildcats are poised to make a third consecutive postseason appearance this year.

“It feels a lot different,” linebacker Kash Daniel said. “The trust, love, and belief of every single guy on this team. You look at what Ty (Tyrell) did (last week). He hasn’t got a lot of reps but when his name got called on, we came in and made one of the biggest plays of the game. That just shows you that no matter if you’re a starter or second string – if you’re number gets called, be ready to play.

“Ty came up huge for us (with an interception) and I can’t be prouder of him, I know how hard he’s worked. He’s a great friend and great teammate. You look all around, you got Josh (Allen), our whole D-line, Jordan, everybody in the secondary – they came in and did their job (last week). That’s what we’ve preached from day one, come in and don’t do anything extra and just be the best version of you and play in and play out.”

Gametracker: South Carolina at Kentucky, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. TV/Radio: SEC Network, UK Radio Network.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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