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Evolution of the Defense Under Mark Stoops and DJ Elliot

UK's defense has changed each of the last two seasons, and it's poised to be tweaked yet again for several reasons.

UK's defensive brain trust - Mark Stoops and DJ Elliot
UK's defensive brain trust - Mark Stoops and DJ Elliot
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Mark Stoops parlayed a very successful stint as the defensive coordinator at Arizona -- where he turned one of college football's worst defenses into one of the best -- into one of the most coveted assistant jobs in the country: Florida State's defensive coordinator. At his introductory press conference in 2010, Mark Stoops unequivocally stated his defensive scheme will be multiple, but his defense would have the 4-3 front as its base defense with a coverage and blitzing scheme that most would label "conservative". This philosophy largely aligned with that of the wider Stoops clan. His older brother Bob employed similar defenses as the defensive coordinator first at Kansas State, Florida, and later as head coach at Oklahoma.

Yet, this was Mark Stoops on April 1st, 2015:

With the 3-4, it’s just more balanced. You just look at it structurally, it’s more balanced on where you can bring movement and where you can bring pressures and changeups, so to us it’s just more balanced and it gives us again more flexibility in our disguise with our pressures.

A customarily open and frank statement by Mark Stoops that would never be mistaken as an April Fool's prank. Stoops' outlook may have started to shift while still at Florida State, but the evolution has definitely been apparent, if not radical, at Kentucky. In 2013, UK's defense featured four man fronts, and that continued into the spring scrimmage of 2014. Last season, the defense mostly featured three man fronts, but still played a lot of four man fronts - especially on obvious passing downs.

Why did Stoops change? What does this mean for the 2015 season and beyond? First, a brief review.


UK ran a 4-3/Over base alignment. Avery Williamson plugged the middle, along with tackles Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble. Za'Darius Smith and Bud Dupree were defensive ends, and Khalid Henderson played the weak-side linebacker. The strong-side linebacker was TraVaughn Paschal, but he was replaced by Blake McClain at nickel back if the opposing offense substituted to only have one running back on the field, which has increasingly become common.

My memory has somewhat faded, but I have distinct memories of UK attempting to play a "bend but don't break" style defense that intended to generate pressure from Dupree and Smith or from coverage; thereby allowing the linebackers to patrol the shallow zones. If a linebacker did blitz, it was typically Williamson, but it was not often.

The coverages were a blend of either straight Cover 3, or Cover 3 with pattern-matching principles. UK played some man coverage, but going off memory (again), zone appeared to be the more common coverage.


At the spring scrimmage of 2014, UK's defense looked pretty identical to the alignment and philosophy of the 2013 season. This was unsurprising given Stoops' track record, and it was further reiterated by two-deep released in July that appeared to indicate a 4-2-5 defense. Then in the opening game of the season against UT-Martin, UK mostly played a 3-4 defensive front (SURPRISE! SURPRISE!). This continued into the Ohio game when UK established itself of having the tendency to show 3-4 front on running downs, and play a 4 man front -- with five defensive backs -- on obvious passing downs. In fact, against Ohio, UK showed a 3-4 front on 72 snaps, and only showed 4-3 front on 8 snaps.

The new changes continued in other ways. The 2013 defense was not one that blitzed often, but against an outmatched Ohio team I charted 15 total blitzes with the vast majority coming out of the 3-4 defensive front. Here was UK using the 3-4 to bring "pressures and changeups". Furthermore, UK showed a tendency to blitz its defensive backs -- they blitzed 8 of the 18 total blitzers against Ohio in just the first three quarters -- which it hadn't previously done. The secondary also played more man coverage than it had in 2013, and appeared to almost exclusively operate in pattern-matching when UK played zone.

The tendencies on display in the first two games would go on to be largely representative of the entire 2014 campaign. It certainly helped that UK had a stud in Bud Dupree who was a Swiss army knife defender who was just as comfortable rushing the passer as he was tackling skill players in space. Perhaps we all should have known a migration to 3-4 was in the works as defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh had been tweeting UK was developing two-gap defensive linemen. AJ Stamps' abilities very likely also contributed to alterations in what coverages UK would run, or even blitz packages, given his ability to cover a lot of ground deep.

So What's Next?

The 2015 season will inevitably have more tweaks and changes. For starters, there's a huge void on the defensive line as Dupree and Smith have both moved on along with Mike Douglas. UK will be without their classic pass-rushers that have both length and speed. Presumably Jason Hatcher fills in for Dupree at SAM while Farrington Huguenin, or one of the new-comers succeed Smith, but none of these players have displayed an ability to be above average pass-rushers based on limited evidence.

Speaking of Huguenin, UK labelled he and Smith as defensive ends and Douglas, Corey Johnson, and Regie Meant as defensive tackles last season, but their roles weren't very different against the run. Both positions aligned in five technique over the offensive tackle and had two-gap responsibilities. UK would sometimes stunt out of this basic set-up, but there wasn't a lot of variation, and personnel did not switch sides based on the strong-side call. It was fairly basic, but that could be changing this season. There could be more shading, one-gapping, or personnel assigned to strong and weak-sides.

Defensive coordinator DJ Elliot also had some illuminating comments on April 1st. To whit:

We run a lot of 3-4 schemes, but I would still call us a multiple defense. We’ll get in some 4-3 looks as well and even some stack defense. We’ll do a lot of different things.

A stack defense? Now that's different for UK. This is a 3-3-5 look which makes sense given the loss of Dupree, and further suggests the lack a true pass-rusher this upcoming season. In this defense, probably to be used on passing downs, UK will generate pressure through disguised blitzes. This is the defense UL-Monroe ran against UK and had quite a bit of success for the first quarter (UL-Monroe nearly upset Texas A&M too so they were a good Sun Belt squad), as UK had trouble following blocking assignments and protection schemes. Here's further reading if interested.

Elliot also says that UK will continue to show 4-3 looks, and there's always the possibility for one-gap 3-4 schemes. The defensive playbook is getting increasingly exotic.

So Why Is This Happening?

In short, I'm not completely sure but I have a few working theories. First, Stoops and Elliot are responding to the climate of college football offenses that spread defenses out. Having four linebackers on the field, or five defensive backs, should get more speed on the field to counter offenses trying to break defenses down in space. If an offense happens to go with a loaded backfield and a tight end, then UK will respond by substituting in kind with a four man front.

The proliferation of spread offenses has continued unabated since Mark Stoops arrived in Tallahassee in 2010, causing previously held notions to evolve. His brother Bob moved Oklahoma to more of a 3-4 base alignment in 2013 as the BIG 12's offenses were nearly all running the spread for several years, and changes to decades-long schemes were required. The SEC was slower adopting the spread offense, but it's everywhere now.

Second, it suits UK's personnel. Graduated are UK's natural pass-rushers, and more blitzing -- something that's easier to disguise out of the 3-4 -- may be needed to generate pressure. To go along with that, UK's secondary continues to improve and Stoops may be more comfortable leaving them isolated while blitzing occurs. Stoops has had three offseasons now to implement his defense and work with these players. It's only natural that more complexity would follow.

Finally, the defensive struggles in 2013 were due to several different factors, but maybe being a bit too predictable was more of a factor than previously acknowledged. Out of the 4-3 front, UK wasn't very "multiple", and so was likely easier to game plan against. If you have a great defense filled to the brim with outstanding athletes -- think the Seattle Seahawks -- you can run a no frills 4-3 defensive front. You win a lot due to your superior talent, and UK doesn't have that kind of talent, and maybe never will compared to a lot of the SEC. Having a sneaky defense that attacks asymmetrically is required.


UK's evolution will correspond with future offensive innovations. For now, UK appears to have a strategy and is in the process of implementing it. Look to recruiting to see how UK views future trends. Long defensive backs that in a few years could be either large run-stopping safeties or outside linebackers. Defensive linemen who have the frame to weigh nearly 300 pounds, but also the length to bat down passes without jumping. Smaller linebackers who could play either inside or outside linebacker due their speed to close out on the edge, but also enabled to make plays inside the box due to their large defensive linemen teammates soaking up offensive blockers. Versatility becomes even more important than it was last season.

The definitive reasons for the scheme shifts have never been voiced by Mark Stoops (not sure if he's been asked either). At this point, Stoops' schemes and philosophies from 2007, or even 2010, aren't that recognizable anymore. That reflects the current reality, but also serves to display the competence of UK's defensive staff.