The University of Kentucky's defense struggled on the football field in 2013. In terms of total defense it was ranked next to last in the SEC. Schematically, everything seemed sound or at least defensible from the stands and/or armchairs. Coach Mark Stoops and defensive coordinator DJ Elliot brought their years of coaching defense against Top 25 offenses and at times their tactics were apparent. That was until other teams began to adjust, and UK simply didn't have the horses to keep up. Importantly, the players played hard throughout the course of the year. Discouraging then, that the defense showed no improvement statistically compared to 2012:
- 2012: Allowed 31 points per game; 5.5 yards per play; F/+ -12.6% and ranked 114th.
- 2013: Allowed 31.2 points per game; 6.26 yards per play; F/+ -12% and ranked 109th.
Frustratingly, the defense was returning its five leading tacklers from the 2012 season. Of course, there were a few scheduling aberrations (Facing Alabama and uncharacteristically strong UofL and Missouri offenses) but strength of schedule is controlled for in F/+ rankings. The biggest problem was UK's inability to stop the run, and put teams in 2nd and 3rd and long situations. UK was ranked near the bottom in terms of success on these standard downs. Worse, UK's success on passing downs got worse as the year went on. Prior to the Mississippi State, UK was just a little below average on stopping teams on passing downs. The team got worse statistically as the year went on.
Time for the good news. The defense is returning 8 starters of whom at least three of them will be three year starters. There is also talent in Stoops' last two signing classes. A few of them may be able to contribute this year especially the two JUCO transfers who will be expected to contribute immediately.
Last season UK primarily ran four man fronts with two defensive ends and two defensive tackles. Stoops has made it clear since he was hired that he wants to give offenses multiple looks. Last season UK line up in a 3-4 front very rarely (a few times against UofL off the top of my head), but more of that may be on the horizon given Stoops commitment. To run more 3 man fronts UK will need to upgrade its talent, and develop specific body types, along the defensive line. We may see the first signs of multiple fronts this spring. That's something to watch for.
UK does not have much depth along the defensive line. Yet again, UK will rely on young players to be key back-ups. Ideally, UK will want to have a rotation of 5 seasoned tackles to keep the big guys fresh. I'm not sure they get that this year without the youth stepping up, and playing beyond their experience.
The two biggest names on UK's team at the outset will be the bookend defensive ends Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith. Dupree will be starting for this third season, and he is reportedly now weighing in at 270 pounds. Dupree is considered by many publications to be one of the best defensive ends in the SEC. Returning for his senior year should give him more time to increase his draft stock and solidify his legacy at UK. If Dupree has a big year he has a shot at breaking Oliver Barnett's record of 26 career sacks after his 7 sack performance last season.
Smith was a highly recruited JUCO prospect who surprisingly chose UK. Smith had a decent season overall, but didn't seem to perform in the SEC season as he did early on. Once he faced larger offensive tackles he had a harder time getting off blocks and finding the ball. Smith has only been playing football for a few years now, and he should be improved this spring after a seasons worth of technique and a winter in the weight room.
Their primary backup will be sophomore Jason Hatcher. Stoops' first real recruiting coup. Hatcher had a strong year last season registering two sacks in limited action. He has a smaller frame than most defensive ends, and relies more on his explosive first steps and lateral quickness to make plays. I'm interested to see how much weight he's put on in the off season. If he has retained his quickness and added strength he will provide valuable depth.
Farrington Huguenin primarily backed up Smith last season. He is entering his junior year, and is a player to watch this spring. He's listed at 6'4 260 pounds last season which is a great frame for a defensive end. If he has improved his body in the weight room, and refines technique, he may make waves this year.
Overall, there is not much depth at the defensive end position. It's important for those players to remain healthy or the coaches will have some difficult decisions to make.
The defensive tackle positions lost two seniors to graduation in Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph. Stepping into their place will likely being JUCO transfer Cory Johnson, who has enrolled early, and there should be quite a bit of competition for the other position. Three seniors, Melvin Lewis (JUCO transfer who redshirted last year), and two redshirt freshmen will compete for these positions. Cobble and Rumph, along with the other departing senior Tristian Johnson played the vast majority of snaps along with senior Mike Douglas. Speculating, Douglas, the redshirt freshmen, and Cory Johnson will get most of the snaps barring injury. In any case, more competition is better for all parties.
The linebacking corps loses its top tackler the last two years in middle linebacker Avery Williamson. Who will step up and take his place is a major concern for this defense. Khalid Henderson and TraVaughn Paschal are the two other starting linebackers returning. Henderson has shown some promise playing the weakside linebacker. He needed to put on good weight this offseason and get stronger. Paschal was effected by the fact UK played so much nickel coverage last season that he was usually only on the field for obvious running downs. For him to make contributions this season he'll need to be linebacker UK is comfortable having on the field in some passing situations. By the end of last season neither had demonstrated the ability to take their game to a higher level. Like some of the other positions, how they have changed their bodies in the weight room could translate to their performance on the field.
There remains a yawning gap at the middle linebacker position, and spring practice performances may indicate who earns Williamson's old spot. Freshman Dorian Hendrix enrolled early and he has the prototypical middle linebacker frame. He may get some looks given the fact he's already on campus, but he is a raw freshman. Miles Simpson is the former Kentucky all-star running back who has seen regular action at linebacker the last two seasons. He will also be in the mix along with fellow seniors Kory Brown and Malcom McDuffen (I'm not able to verify if Tyler Brause graduated early or not). Finally, it's long been rumored that sophomore Marcus McWilson will be moved from his nickel back position to linebacker. If that's true, we should see that this spring, though I he possesses an outside linebacker frame. In the spring it will probably be "linebacker by committee" and coordinator DJ Elliot will shuffle and adjust the players to see which three belong on the field.
This is also not a deep group (JUCO linebacker Ryan Flannigan won't arrive until this summer) for spring ball. Their development will be critical to the defenses overall effectiveness. My concern is that the lack of competition may hurt their development. Iron sharpens iron and right now it seems like the starters won't be threatened by their back-ups. I hope I turn out wrong.
The secondary should be one of the most competitive and competent positional battles this spring. All four starters return, along with each of their back-ups, and UK's starting nickel back who could play corner in a pinch. Seniors Ashely Lowery and Eric Dixon started at safety last year, and juniors Cody Quinn, Nate Willis, and Fred Tiller shared starts at cornerback. Aside from the JUCO transfer Willis, the other four of these players had heavy playing time the last three years. Lowery and Dixon will be backed up by junior twins Daron Blaylock and Zack Blaylock along with one of Joker's highest rated recruits Glenn Faulkner. The three of them have battled injuries the last few years, and unfortunately for the Blaylocks, they missed out on a red shirt season that would have helped their development their freshman year.
The corner back position also has depth and some developing talent. Nate Willis, Fred Tiller, and Cody Quinn will all compete for starting positions. Quinn was labelled as one of the best cover corners on the team last season after returning from an injury at the beginning of the season. Willis had some moments of strong play but he was inconsistent in coverage and was not a strong tackler in space last season. All three of these players will benefit from their time in the weight room. All three need to improve in run support, given their lack of size, but also be stronger for the physical wide receivers they'll face. Stoops played quite a bit of man coverage last season, and physicality sometimes seemed lacking.
JUCO transfer AJ Stamps will also compete for playing time at cornerback this season. Stamps was recruited by Ohio State coming out of JUCO which suggests he may already be a more complete player than anyone else in UK's secondary. Meanwhile, sophomore-to-be Blake McClain came out of nowhere last season to play regularly as a nickel back which on most rosters means he was rated the third best corner on the team. McClain was relatively unheralded Joker recruit whose offer was honored by Stoops.
Rounding out the group will be Jaleel Hytchye, who if memory serves, was Stoops first commitment upon being named UK's coach. Hytchye saw some playing time last season, and while he boasts natural speed and athleticism, his lack of playing time may suggest his technique is a work in a progress. In hindsight, he probably should have redshirted. If Hytchye doesn't crack the starting lineup this season I suspect he will contribute on various special teams.
If the secondary can do its job and prevent - or at least delay - open players in the secondary by a second or two, then Dupree and Smith will benefit. I also want to see if more turnovers are created in spring ball, because that is an area Stoops has stated he wants to improve upon. I'm optimistic this will be the case as the defensive players have one year in the system, and they should do less thinking about what they should do and more reacting.