The University of Kentucky's football team appears to want greater defensive versatility in order to counter the current generation of offensive schemes. A defense filled with some generalists can also be wielded to increase a defense's denial, deception, and disruption. Evidence supporting a versatile approach are in public comments, last season's tactics, the recently released depth chart, and possibly recruiting.
Offenses across college football have increasingly embraced hurry-up, no-huddle (HUNH) offenses. Specifics vary, but essentially offenses hope to wear out defenses by limiting the time between plays. More than just attacking a defender's stamina, the HUNH also takes advantage of college football's substitution rules. The offense's decisions about personnel dictates when, or if, the defense can swap personnel in and out, so if the offense sees a personnel mismatch they can repeatedly exploit it. This tactical advantage was challenged in the offseason via a rules committee proxy.
In addition to the HUNH proliferation, more teams are also employing 10 personnel (1 back and 0 tight end) or 11 personnel (1 back and 1 tight end) in today's game. This spreads the field with multiple receivers, creates stress points, and requires a defense to cover more ground. Mark Stoops would obviously love to field a defense staffed by 6'3'' 250 pound freaks who run 4.3 forties, but since that's not realistic tactics and personnel get adjusted.
UK faces offenses employing these offensive philosophies either doctrinally or situationally. Possibly even more so in the future with Florida's new hire of Kurt Roper, Bobby Petrino back at UofL, and UK's permanent SEC West match-up, Mississippi State, who has a coach with a deep history of spread offenses. This isn't to say UK won't be prepared to face teams, at least schematically, featuring 2 back sets. In fact, UK's typical four man defensive front is the traditional approach to defending pro-style sets.
Public Comments and Last Season
Since his very first press conference, Mark Stoops has made a commitment to fielding a defense that is "multiple." Last season that largely took the guise of a 4-3 and a 4-2-5 front (with various coverages). Rarely, there were instances when the defensive front shifted to more of a 3-4 look with Alvin Dupree or Jason Hatcher shifting from defensive end to stand-up linebacker. Moreover, against Missouri the defense played at times what appeared to be dime coverage. While the personnel did not perform as well as they would have liked, the schematic intentions seemed apparent. The defense will be versatile to address any contingency whether it be LSU's 21 personnel or Missouri's spread attack.
On UK's National Signing Day webcast the defensive coaches talk about versatility with the signees. It was described as a positive to be a player who can play multiple roles within the defense. The coaches seem to be building the classes of the future by taking into account some of the signees' versatility.
In and of itself, the preseason depth chart is not evidence of a commitment to versatility necessarily; however, it does require the nickelback to play a very important multi-role position. With the exclusion of a strong-side linebacker, the nickelback will not only be expected to cover (typically) the other team's third passing option but also provide run support. (Note: there is a nitpicky difference between a 4-3 with nickel coverage and a 4-2-5 front. A 4-3 nickel sees a cornerback replacing the strong-side linebacker because it is an obvious passing down. A 4-2-5 front sees a safety substituted for the strong-side linebacker in a dual run-stopping and pass protection role).
The nickelbacks listed on the roster include last year's starting safety Eric Dixon, and Blake McClain who cross-trained at safety this spring. UK appears to want to put as much speed on the field as possible to reduce stress points, though size could be sacrificed at times. This is similar to TCU's system.
Hank is the expert, but it appears UK is seeking defensive recruits that project to multiple positions. Given finite roster space it makes sense for diversified roles, but they seem to be specifically recruiting athletes that can fill multiple roles schematic purposes as well. For example, freshman Kobie Walker's frame could have him playing linebacker or defensive end in either various fronts depending on his weight gain the next two to three years. The same with freshman Denzel Ware, and we've already seen it with sophomore Jason Hatcher. Freshman Darius West projects as safety, corner, or nickelback. Sophomore Marcus McWilson could project as safety or nickelback. Former 2015 commitment Marcus Walker has the frame to play corner, safety, or nickel. I'm sure there are other examples.
By recruiting multi-position prospects the coaches can keep them on the field regardless of the offensive formation. Ideally, Jason Hatcher would just as easily rush the quarterback out of a three point stance, as he would drop back into coverage. He can stay on the field against an offense that features a loaded, run-heavy backfield, or against an offensive formation featuring a single back and four receivers. This makes UK's defense not subject to the substitution whims of the opposing offense.
Denial and Deception
So far this post has emphasized versatility in terms of reaction to what an offense is doing, but defensive versatility can also be proactive. If your personnel can do multiple things it makes it easier for the defense to disguise and disrupt. One way to do this is to disguise your pass coverage, blitz packages, or stemming. If the defensive line has personnel suited for the traditional roles inherit in a 3 man or 4 man defensive front then they can credibly alter their fronts at the line of scrimmage right before the snap.
It doesn't have to be as radical as shifting between three or four man fronts, but true versatility at certain positions provides a credible threat that offenses have to incorporate into their play-calling. The results can be a confused offensive line that misses its blocking assignments. When a defense has an offense worried about what it's doing then it's in good shape. Finally, versatility also eases pressure on substitution packages and lessens the impact of injuries.
Mark Stoops and his staff appear committed to recruiting and developing a defense staffed with versatile generalists who can fill multiple roles. For example, Alvin Dupree is a defensive end who can rush or cover, while Blake McClain is a defensive back who has the skills to cover and support the run. This isn't to say that every defender is a generalist, but there are tweeners who are supporting the less versatile specialists.
The emphasis on versatility may be an aspect of Stoops' coaching philosophy, but it also serves in response to the proliferation of HUNH and spread offenses. It allows flexible players to stay on the field because they can play various roles regardless of the down, distance, or formation.