All good coaches adjust to their personnel to give their team the best chance to win. We have seen this repeatedly with John Calipari, this year we will see it with Mark Stoops. At both Arizona and Florida State, Coach Stoops ran a 4-3 defense. He brought the same defensive philosophy to the Kentucky Wildcats initially.
Last season Stoops experimented with the 3-4, this season he has made a full-fledged transition to the 3-4 as the full-time base defense for UK. I want to unpack the reasoning behind the move and how UK needs to adjust to be successful in the defense.
THE PARADIGM SHIFT
"We've always been a 4-3 team," Stoops said at SEC Media Days. "I've always had a 4-3 background."
"And really just with the players we had and the versatility and all of the different offenses (Kentucky will face), we really wanted to make that transition to a 3-4. ... I think (defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot's) done a great job of working through that with myself and the rest of the defensive coaches."
The actual shift to the defense is not as big of a deal as the culture that comes with it. Any defense will line up in multiple looks in any given game. Kentucky will not be lining up in a 3-down lineman set every single play, so the defense itself is not a game changing factor for UK.
The culture and thought process of the 3-4 is one of attacking, creating mismatches and misdirection. The 4-3 defense is a defense of overpowering, going big on big, wearing down an opponent, and beating them head to head. Offensive linemen prefer to face a 4-3, which means they have to block a defensive lineman.
If the Wildcats had a 4-man front that could overwhelm the opposing line, this would be ideal. As we all know, the ‘Cats do not have the size or talent to line up with the upper echelon of the SEC and win consistently.
In the 3-4, the offensive line has to read the defense as well as block instead of simply beating the man in front of you. This is not a fun position for the lineman to be in, it gives the defense a strategic advantage. The defense knows exactly where the offensive linemen will be doing their work, there are no stunts and twists on the offensive line.
This will give D.J. Eliot the opportunity to dictate the tone and dictate who takes on blockers and who does not. When you are a fast team without the same level of size as your opponent, this is a great way to neutralize any disadvantages.
CLOGGING THE HOLES
The 3-4 is a defense that will win or lose based on two factors: the Nose Tackle, and how dynamic the linebackers are. The primary job of the nose tackle is to explode off the ball and drive the center back while covering the "A" gaps (the gaps on either side of the center).
If the ball is ran up the middle in one of those gaps, the ability of the nose tackle to get his paws on the runner is huge. To put faces with the positions, the ‘Cats will be using 6'4" 332 pound senior Melvin Lewis and 6'7" 360 pound sophomore Matt Elam.
The ability of Lewis or Elam to draw a double team is crucial as well. If you refer to the graphic above, imagine the Center and the left guard double team Elam.
This would give CJ Johnson or Reggie Meant or Farrington Hueguenin single coverage on the tackle. If they can handle the tackle at all, the outside rusher (Jason Hatcher) is free to attack either a running back trying to block or unabated to the QB.
Those two have more than enough girth and ability to clog the middle and be the very large "tip of the spear" of the defense. Melvin Lewis and Coach Stoops talked about mentoring Elam and Lewis' preference for the 3-4 in a recent article.
"Personally, I enjoy a playing a 3-4 better," said Lewis, "Instead of being in a react-attack, you're in an attack-react sort of mindset. I think it makes things easier for everyone."
"I think Melvin has been a guy that has really tried to lead and help Matt in that area and give him that extra motivation and be the guy, and that's what it takes for all of our team," Stoops said. "We need more and more leaders."
"If someone your age is telling you something you know you have to get something done," Lewis said. "I'm holding him accountable to be able to be an impact this year as well. He's transitioning well and responding well."
Former ‘Cat Bud Dupree is exactly the player that can thrive in a 3-4 defense as a pass-rusher. One of the aspects of a 4-3 is that the defensive end lines up against a tackle, hopefully beats him, and gets pressure.
As an outside linebacker in the 3-4 you are freed up to do more and not necessarily have to beat the guy in front of you over and over.
"Me personally, I like the 3-4 because I like to think I'm a smart player. And when you're standing up, you get to see more, so I can assess the situation - what's coming and how it's attacking me. Another advantage is you get another athlete on the field - another line back as opposed to another defensive lineman."
The 3-4 is where guys like Aldon Smith and Clay Matthews rack up the sack numbers. Being a cerebral player with exceptional athletic ability is exactly the kind of person tailor made to be that outside rush guy.
UK HAS A NEED... A NEED FOR SPEED
It is no secret that Mark Stoops has recruited speed, the team speed has increased year over year and exponentially since the Joker days. Speed cannot be taught, but technique can. This is how Coach Stoop is trying to level the playing field with the rest of the SEC.
When Stoops came to Kentucky, he brought Erik Korem and his high performance training system with him. One of the measurables that Coach Stoops uses is just how fast his players run. When he first came to UK there were only five guys that ran faster than 19 miles per hour. This offseason Stoops confirmed the ‘Cats have 33 guys who now fit that bill.
"The offseason has gone amazing," Senior Offensive Tackle Jordan Swindle said. "I think two years ago during the season, we had five guys run over 19 miles an hour. Just last week, we had 33 guys run over 19 miles an hour. So we're definitely explosive."
Stoops would confirm that statistic and go on to elaborate just a bit more.
"That's a piece of the technology that some of our players look at," he said. "Part of the good thing about some of that stuff is you can't hide from it. The numbers are the numbers and (the increase in speed) is encouraging. I know each year, as I look at the data, I see improvement. I see the strength and the speed improving."
Earlier, I mentioned that the culture of changing to a 3-4 vs. a 4-3 is more important than the move itself. For years, nay decades, Kentucky has been a program that has tried to beat the rest of the SEC at its own game.
Stoops' willingness to think outside the box by recruiting Ohio heavily to get a better influx of talent is just one example of adjusting to the competition vs. bowing to it. Moving away from the only defense he has coached at the college level is another.
Coach Stoops realizes that UK has a fundamental disadvantage to simply lining up and going head to head. Instead of having a woe is me mentality, Stoops has recruited and developed his players in a way that will allow him to actually compete in the SEC.
Strong up the middle, explosive on the edges would be the simplest way to lay out the key to success for this defense. The aforementioned tips of the spear in Matt Elam and Melvin Lewis will be the first line of strength for that equation.
You would be hard pressed to find a better middle linebacker in the SEC than Josh Forrest is likely going to be this year. Combine him with senior Ryan Flannigan and you have significant strength up the middle in the 2nd tier.
Looking even deeper and you will see that the ‘Cats core of safeties is one of the better ones in the conference with A.J. Stamps, Marcus McWilson, Mike Edwards, and Darius West. This gives the 'Cats strength up the middle in the 3rd tier as well.
The dynamic talent on the edges will be the difference in a 5-7 season or a 7-5 season in my opinion. We have known commodities in Jason Hatcher, Farrington Huguenin, Reggie Meant, CJ Johnson, and Jabari Johnson. We also unfortunately know what we have on the corners and it is not SEC ability. There are wild cards in Chris Westry, and Kendall Randolph that could shore up that position, though.
While saying the Kentucky defense will be better this year than it was last year is like saying you live on the tallest mountain in Kansas, I do think we will see an exponential improvement. Stoops willingness to adjust to his personnel strength will be the major factor in the evolution to a respectable SEC defense.