When the Nutter practice facility doors swing open this fall and the 2018 Kentucky football Wildcats come pouring onto the field, Mark Stoops and his staff will begin the task of plugging new faces into spaces.
They’ll evaluate recruits who are just now finishing their final semesters of high school (or junior college). Some are sure to help right away. Most will have to wait their respective turns.
Fortunately for Stoops and the guys who work the defensive side of the hall, when it comes to two veteran players, everything old is new again.
The bulletins that both Josh Allen and Mike Edwards have decided to eschew the NFL Draft and come back for their senior seasons instantly made the UK defense better for the upcoming season. Yes, Stoops has recruited more depth. There are other defensive ends and safeties on the squad. But none are as talented as these two, both All-SEC performers.
Allen got off to a blistering start in 2017, so hot that he was being compared to ex-Wildcat Bud Dupree, who went in the first round in 2015 to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Then the competition got stiffer and so did resistance from opposing offenses, which schemed to account for Allen at all times. His stats cooled off.
“It was stressful at times,” he told the assembled media on Thursday morning. “It was also humbling.”
Allen began to encounter more double-team blocks, two offensive linemen ganging up on him. At the very least, an enemy running back would drop off to help keep him away from the quarterback.
“Other teams were game planning against me,” he said, causing him to think, “I have to do things to get better. I know I can do it. I want to work on that in the off season. It’s an awesome feeling.”
Allen knew he’d be a mid-round selection. Edwards had heard similar reports on himself, including speculation that he could go early or as late as the fourth round. “When they said stuff like that, I needed to get something real accurate,” he said. “That’s one other reason I came back.”
Both cited the chance to be a part of a defensive unit that now will return 10 of 11 starters. The one missing piece is middle linebacker Courtney Love. He’ll likely be replaced by junior-to-be Kash Daniel, who’s already played a lot of football for the Wildcats.
“We want to shoot for championships,” Edwards said. “Try to get the defense right and play together.”
Allen pointed to the number of juniors and seniors who figure to see significant minutes for the UK defense this season. “Everybody wants to get it done,” he said. “This is our last time. We gotta get it now. All across the board, we’re gonna be solid. I just want to be a part of that.”
Allen and Edwards both said they talked for hours about their respective decisions; the fact that they went through the process together made it easier, they said. A bonus for Edwards is the fact that he’s on schedule to graduate in December. His parents are delighted about that.
For Allen, there was another mitigating factor: He’s a new father.
Wesley DeVon Allen arrived on Jan. 3 and now, the player knows, every life-altering decision he makes has to be made through the prism of how it will affect his young family.
“Everything I do affects him now,” he said. “Just being here with him affects my decision. Once he came, it changed everything. It made my thought process a little different.”
It’s probably the biggest reason Allen decided not to gamble on giving up his final year of college football. There’s no such thing as a sure thing when it comes to the NFL Draft, but honing his skills with another season of SEC football can only help.
Mark Stoops agreed, according to both players.
“He felt like it was the right decision,” Allen said. “He’s excited.”
Edwards said he got the same sort of reaction. “He was real excited when I told him. He jumped for joy,” said Edwards, who admitted that he told him over the phone. Perhaps he could tell by listening that Stoops happily left his feet. Maybe they were FaceTiming.
Whether Stoops jumped or not, you couldn’t blame him. He saw Dupree make a similar decision, passing up the draft after his junior season and improving his situation dramatically, playing his way into the first round.
And Stoops was on staff at Miami when safety Ed Reed decided to come back for his senior season. All Reed did was become a second-time consensus All-American for the Hurricanes, helping them win the 2001 national championship. After that, he was chosen in the first round by the Ravens. Reed played 12 years in the NFL, including 11 seasons with Baltimore, where he was a nine-time All-Pro and won a Super Bowl ring.
Both Wildcats have set similar goals for the upcoming season, personal and team. They kicked it around together, as they made the biggest decision of their young lives.
“We talked for hours, discussing what we could do,” said Allen, who was the first to decide to return, sharing the news with Edwards. “Once I told him, he told me, ‘Let’s do it.’ “
Which means two All-SEC performers will be back in uniform for the Kentucky defense when the 2018 season begins, September 1.