That’s saying something considering the Wildcats’ current youth movement, especially at linebacker.
But after allowing 466 yards in Sunday’s loss at then-No. 25 Louisville, Kentucky coach Joker Phillips believes it’s time to blend in more newcomers, which could mean significant playing time for two freshmen — former Pebblebrook High School standout Khalid Henderson and Pancho Thomas — against the Golden Flashes.
Although neither player is listed on the two-deep depth chart, both were highly regarded recruits and will be thrown into action as Phillips and defensive coordinator Rick Minter seek replacements for the graduated Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy.
They will rotate in a unit that started three sophomores and a junior against Louisville.
“Let ’em play,” Phillips said. “That’s what we’ll do. Why not? Talent will overcome experience every day. If you make mistakes as a sophomore and junior it’s no different than a freshman making them, so you’ll see some of the freshmen getting more reps.
“What’s the difference? You give up (466) yards and you’re a junior, why not put a freshman in there and see if we can only give up 400 with a guy who’s more talented. They’ll get an opportunity, but we’ve got to simplify it for them.”
Kentucky’s defense was ransacked by Louisville, allowing scoring drives of 99, 85 and 93 yards on the Cardinals’ first three possessions en route to a 32-14 defeat. Louisville rushed for 219 yards and averaged 7.7 yards per play while starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was in the game.
“We’ve got to make those same improvements on defense and show those on defense, and be more consistent,” Phillips said. “We didn’t do anything consistent. We didn’t stop the run. We didn’t stop the pass.”
The Wildcats’ failures were a combination of alignment issues and missed assignments, but there were times they had players in place to make a play and simply didn’t do it. Three of Kentucky’s four linebackers made their first career starts, which exacerbated issues.
Kentucky could be younger at cornerback as well this week as the staff attempts to fix defensive issues.
“We’ve got to find out in the first third or quarter of the season who (will be) our playmakers,” Minter said. “We lost a ton of production on the second level at the linebacker position and we’ve got to find out if we’ve got some guys that can make some plays.
“We had guys in positions that did not perform very well at times, so we have to give some other guys some playing time. Now is the time when the season is still an infant and see what they can do. It’s not about canning anybody, it’s about promoting and seeing what they can do with opportunity.”
Kentucky faces a Kent State team coming off a 41-21 rout of Towson State. Dri Archer was the catalyst, returning two kickoffs for 155 yards and a touchdown and rushing for 54 yards and two more scores.
Phillips said Henderson will rotate at the weakside linebacker spot, while Thomas will backup junior Avery Williamson at middle linebacker. Freshmen cornerbacks J.D. Harmon and Fred Tiller will also see more action this week.
“These guys have equal or more talent than the guys in front of them,” Phillips said, “therefore we need to play them because next year we’d be sitting here saying they’re inexperienced. We have to get them experience now. If (starting cornerback) Tay Neloms goes down in Week 5 and the first time those guys have taken a snap on the road or something would be a shame for us. That’s difficult to do.
“We said we were going to play them and we’re going to play them.”