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Jun. 27—For the longest time, Penn State was known as “Linebacker U” because of the sheer amount of talent that came through its defensive unit.

With as much success as the University of Kentucky has seen at that position over the last few years, though, the Wildcats might be coming for that nickname. With UK’s addition of Ole Miss transfer Jacquez Jones, the Cats’ linebacking corps will field another strong contingent next season.

Though it doesn’t fall into the typical norm of recruiting, coach Mark Stoops’ ability to go into the transfer portal and find someone with Southeastern Conference experience who can fill an immediate need speaks volumes of the Cats’ appeal.

Instead of searching for scraps and hoping a longshot pans out, Stoops stepped in and scooped up Jones — a 6-foot, 235-pounder from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, who led Ole Miss in tackles last year. The junior started in nine of the Rebels’ 10 contests, making 75 stops, 2.5 tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries.

“We are thrilled to add Jacquez to our team,” Stoops said. “He’s an experienced playmaker who has been a great leader in our league.”

After the early departure of Jamin Davis to the NFL Draft following a breakout campaign in 2020, the Cats had a glaring hole in the middle of their defense. Jones, however, should slide in nicely alongside inside linebacker DeAndre Square, UK’s third-leading tackler last year.

Last season, Kentucky surrendered 25.9 points per game against an SEC-only slate, ranking 45th in the nation. The Cats, though they weren’t helped by an anemic offense on the other side of the ball, finished 54th against the pass (224.6 yards per outing) and 53rd against the run (156.1 yards per contest).

Those numbers will increase once UK opens its schedule up to play nonconference opponents in 2021, but they’re all marks that need improvement — especially the Cats’ quarterback sacks (15 in 11 games; 113th in the country). By adding Jones, Kentucky has the chance to stabilize a defense that had five players drafted into the NFL this year.

Granted, Ole Miss didn’t exactly revolutionize defense in 2020. The Rebels gave up nearly 40 points and 520 yards per game to finish among the nation’s worst defenses, though Jones was hardly to blame for their shortcomings. Instead, after racking up 182 tackles in three seasons in Oxford, Jones hit the transfer portal to see what else was out there.

Enter Stoops & Co., who have a proven track record of developing players at his position. Since arriving in Lexington in 2013, Stoops has had six linebackers drafted into the NFL — Avery Williamson in 2014, Za’Darius Smith and Bud Dupree in 2015, Josh Forrest in 2016, Josh Allen in 2019 and Davis.

With two years of eligibility remaining, Jones will look to follow a similar path to the pros. He’ll get an immediate opportunity thanks to the SEC scrapping its rule of having intraconference transfers sit out a season. The Cats will benefit immediately, as well, considering only Square and Jared Casey, who appeared in all 11 games last year without a start, return significant experience in UK’s linebacking unit.

It’s a situation where both sides should benefit, and Jones could quickly become another name in a long list of talented Kentucky linebackers.

Linebacker U, indeed.