Rookie Report: Breaking down the Kentucky Wildcats' defensive freshmen

In this All Wildcats feature, we take a closer look at Kentucky's freshmen on the defensive side of the ball as the season draws closer. Who are candidates to play early? Who will redshirt? What role will Bluegrass State "Mr. Football" Kash Daniel (pictured above) play?


Players: Kordell Looney, Ja'Quize Cross, T.J. Carter

Camp Buzz: Depth on the front line became an immediate concern when Mark Stoops announced during the first week of camp that junior defensive tackle Regie Meant was taking an indefinite leave of absence from the team. That opened the door for several young players to compete for early playing time in the two-deep, including all three freshman signees. Carter, who some scouts believed was the hidden gem of UK's 2016 recruiting class, put on more than 30 pounds of muscle between signing day and fall camp. The Georgia native is now punching in at an imposing 6-foot-4 and 285 pounds and shows a quick burst off the line of scrimmage. “I think T.J. Carter stepped up and played well," UK defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "He’s got a lot of talent. He’s had some really good flashes this training camp.”

Outlook: Look for Carter to play a backup role at the very least this season. Looney also drew praise for how he competed in camp, so keep an eye on him as the season progresses. Injuries could force him into action as well. Cross will likely redshirt, but has tremendous upside for the future.


Players: Kash Daniel, Roland Walder, Jaylin Bannerman

Camp Buzz: All eyes were on Daniel, the Bluegrass State's "Mr. Football" and a U.S. Army All-American, as camp began. Getting a head start by enrolling in January helped the former Paintsville High School standout transition quicker than had he arrived this summer like typical freshmen. That has placed the 6-foot-1, 241-pound middle linebacker in a position to get second-team reps behind expected starter Courtney Love. "Kash plays very hard. Kash is a physical player," Eliot said. "Still has some assignment things and some technique things that he needs to improve on, but he’s doing a good job.” Walder and Bannerman also flashed signs of their potential during camp, but have more bodies ahead of them on the depth chart at weakside linebacker and the hybrid end/linebacker spots, respectively.

Outlook: Daniel is likely to play a reserve role this season while Walder and Bannerman both redshirt and add weight to their athletic frames. If he plays well, look for the charismatic Daniel to be an instant fan favorite like most players from the mountains of eastern Kentucky become as Wildcats.


Players: Jordan Griffin, Tobias Gilliam, Davonte Robinson

Camp Buzz: When Stoops signed this batch of defensive backs, he told us that, combined with his current personnel, he may have the best group of young corners in the country. Recently, the SEC Network backed that up by naming UK as the top secondary in the league entering the 2016 season. Griffin, Gilliam and Robinson each had multiple offers from other Power 5 programs before signing with Kentucky. Griffin, who picked the Cats over traditional powers Auburn and Clemson, displayed early in camp that he may be ready to fight for playing time this season. "He's an extremely talented guy with a real nose for the ball," said new UK defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale. "He's got some instincts you just can't teach."

Outlook: As good as Griffin was in camp -- including a Pick 6 in the most recent open practice for media --  it's still unclear whether he'll be in the rotation this season. UK has two potential stars in Chris Westry and Derrick Baity lined up as starters and experienced backups behind them in J.D. Harmon and Kendall Randolph. The hunch here is that Griffin will eventually see some action with the Cats having the luxury to redshirt Gilliam and Robinson if the defense stays relatively healthy.


Players: Grant McKinniss

Camp Buzz: You don't see many four-star punters, but that's the designation McKinniss earned coming out of Findlay, Ohio. According to Scout, he was the nation's No. 4 punter prospect coming off a senior year which saw him average close to 40 yards per punt and place 11 of 32 punts inside the 20-yard line. The Cats need that from him this season following the departure of Landon Foster, and McKinniss has shown signs of his potential while competing for the starting job with sophomore Bryan Kirshe. "He's shown some good things, but consistency is the biggest thing we're looking for," new UK special teams coach Matt House said of McKinniss. "You've got to have that consistency from the punter."

Outlook: Heading into the season opener, neither McKinniss nor Kirshe had won the starting job, and Stoops has hinted that he might consider using both early in the season depending on field position. McKinniss would likely get the nod in longer punt situations, while Kirshe may be called upon for shorter, angled kicks.

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