Yesterday's defensive performance against Vanderbilt contributed to the growing narrative that UK's defense may actually be pretty darn good this season. The secondary and pass rush have lived up to their preseason hype, but now the run defense is making weekly strides too. In 2013, UK's defense was pretty bad both in terms of raw stats and adjusted stats. So far this season, the improvement has been stark.
In 2013, the defense allowed 31 points per game, 6.2 yards per play, and offenses converted on 3rd down 45% of the time. So far this year, UK is only allowing 17 points per game, 4.9 yards per play, and a 29% 3rd down conversion rate. The defense has also already forced 7 turnovers, which is nearly half of the 15 it forced last season. Besides the numbers, UK's defense just looks faster and more physical. They are also unselfish and playing with confidence right now:
Confidence can be a dangerous thing for an upstart. It does funny things like making a team expect to beat every team it plays.
But Why The Improvement?
1) The coaching staff knows what they are doing. UK has yet to allow a touchdown in the first half so far, and that is a testament to good game-planning. Mark Stoops' defenses also make a jump in their second season, as his system gets further implemented and he has time to develop his players. Great coaching is also reflected in this team's ability to tackle in space. Something UK teams were not adept at in a long time.
2) Returning 8 starters (9 if you count Blake McClain at nickel back) is also a huge help. They are upperclassmen who have played in tough environments in the SEC for years now. All of these players have improved in the offseason. Corners Fred Tiller and Cody Quinn are reliable defenders now, and Tiller is one of the team's better tacklers. Ashely Lowery and Mike Douglas are two players who are having their best seasons as seniors. As hard as it is to believe, Bud Dupree has also gotten better.
3) The coaches have mostly struck gold in the JUCO ranks. It's common knowledge that it usually takes a season for a JUCO player to adjust to FBS football. In their second year, Za'Darius Smith and Melvin Lewis have firmly established themselves as contributors. Lewis was able to redshirt last season, and it's obvious how much it benefited him. Smith was decent last season, but so far this year is a much better player even if the stats don't reflect his improvement.
4) First year players are making an immediate impact. AJ Stamps is possibly the defense's hardest hitter, and he already has two interceptions. His ability to cover vast expanses of space allows UK to gamble more up front. We are probably two or three weeks removed from online chatter asking if Stamps will go pro early. The other new starter is Josh Forrest who has also been a revelation. He is great in coverage, possibly given his background as a receiver, and is becoming more reliable against the run with every game.
5) There's depth this year. If Fred Tiller or Cody Quinn come off, there's not much fall-back with JD Harmon and Nate Willis taking their spots. When Melvin Lewis needs a breather, Matt Elam has held his own. Corey Johnson and Regie Meant are practically co-starters along with Mike Douglas at defensive tackle. Ryan Flannigan and Khalid Henderson are sharing reps at linebacker. Not every position has proven depth (middle linebacker, defensive ends, and strong safety), but the situation completely different from last year.
6) You never hear Mark Stoops say "recruit" without also adding "and develop" to the sentence. For him, you can't do one without the other. As previously mentioned, the coaching is sinking in, but the player's bodies have transformed as well. It's why they seem bigger, stronger, and faster this season. We've talked a lot in this space about Erik Korem and his S&C program. I compared the 2013 depth chart and roster to the 2014 version. The starting front seven in 2014 has increased its total weight 9% compared to last season's front seven. That's a good 9% too. They are stronger and harder to block.
With their bodies transformed, and the ceiling on their abilities raised, DJ Elliot and Mark Stoops can open up more of their playbook. For example, nickel back blitzes weren't on the menu last season because no defensive back could cover the ground required. The coaches have conspicuously been tight-lipped regarding player speeds. It's almost like they are hiding their abilities.
But Here's The Catch
According to S&P+, UK's defense will face it's toughest offensive challenges in the two months ahead. To this point, the best offense UK has faced was Florida ranked 36th. Missouri's is 31st, LSU is 27th, South Carolina is 10th, Mississippi State is 9th and Georgia's is 7th, Then in the last game of the season UK will face Bobby Petrino which is never easy.
Things won't be easy, but UK's defense has proven it's better this year. More than that, they are confident and expect to be great. A solid defense can make up for UK's shortcomings on offense and could end up being the biggest factor in UK's bowl hopes. Who would have thought at the beginning of the year that would be the case?