Kentucky’s defense has seemingly improved recently. The last two weeks have gone some way towards redeeming a defense that reached a galactic - nay, universal - nadir versus New Mexico State. That dire performance forced the coaches to make changes.
According to Mark Stoops on Monday night, the defense has been simplified with greater emphasis placed on what these players can execute as opposed to what last year’s more veteran defense could execute. This very likely translates to fewer calls and adjustments at the line of scrimmage. Complex defensive schemes can only provide a higher ceiling if players can consistently execute; otherwise, it’s best to trim and improve what you can actually execute - at least temporarily.
Simplifying defenses midstream is happening elsewhere too. Unlike the NFL, college coaches don’t get unlimited time to work with players. Sometimes the Cliffs Notes version is enough to do the job even if it makes you more predictable, and comes back to haunt you at times. Coaches in “Must Win” mode will cross that bridge when they come to it.
Philosophy aside, all that really matters is UK’s overall execution has improved. It’s pretty obvious, too, that the charge is being led by a venerable host of sophomores who appeared to have been further enabled by the changes.
It’s worth our while to focus on these individuals. The children are our future, you know?
The Future of the Defense
Jordan Jones - Look on my works, ye mighty and despair
Inside linebacker and true sophomore Jordan Jones is second in the SEC in tackles only trailing Vanderbilt’s All-SEC linebacker Zach Cunningham by a single tackle. Jones leads the defense with 44 tackles in four games. This accounts for a team-leading 14% of all tackles. He’s also racked up 4.5 tackles for loss and one sack. In the first few weeks of the season, Jones was criticized by Mark Stoops for not following his assignments. Since then he’s been much better diagnosing plays and maintaining his run fits.
The last two weeks he’s also played the role of the defense’s Spy versus the other team’s quarterback. Against Alabama and South Carolina, Jones would seem to be on a delayed blitz call on most passing downs. On this play in the first half against ‘Bama, Jones shows off not only his speed to close, but his tenacity to bounce off two blocks and gain a quarterback hurry that forced an early throw. Good downfield coverage too.
Here, Alabama runs away from Jones towards an outside gap, and Jones still chases down the ball. His teammates all did their jobs plugging lanes which bought Jones the time he needed to help make the tackle thanks to taking a good angle.
Josh Allen - As flies to wanton boys are offensive linemen to Number 41
Allen is currently fourth on the team in tackles accounting for 20.5 tackles, while leading the team in sacks with three, and also tossing in four tackles for loss.
He’s becoming a Swiss Army knife defender capable of being used in multiple packages thanks to his natural abilities, but also his growing football IQ. For example of his diverse abilities, UK will keep him in the game at times when there are four receivers in the game, and let him line up wide against them like against South Carolina which allows UK the option of not playing nickel coverage and losing members of the defensive front:
On the very next play he lines up in a three point stance to rush the passer:
Here is he using the rip technique to keep five star offensive tackle Jonah Williams hands off of him, and force Jalen Hurts to force an early throw:
Mike Edwards - Comes rough, tough like an elephant tusk
True sophomore strong safety Mike Edwards is also having a good season. The fact he was taking playing time away from AJ Stamps last year as a freshman was in hindsight a harbinger. Edwards is second on the team in tackles with 34, to go along with eight pass break-ups. This leads the SEC. It’s remarkable he hasn’t registered an interception yet at this rate, but it seems inevitable that a few will come by the end of the year.
UK also likes to blitz Edwards as he’s typically one of the team’s surest tacklers. This has led to two tackles for loss. Without the benefit of All-22 film to draw a firm conclusion, I say with low to medium confidence that Edwards has not typically been the weak link in coverage breakdowns so far this season. He played extremely well in coverage against the SEC’s best tight end, OJ Howard, last Saturday.
Denzil Ware - They heard you blowin up like nitro. Now they wanna stick the knife through your windpipe slow.
Redshirt sophomore Denzil Ware has 15 tackles on the season amounting to 4.5% of all tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and is tied for most sacks with three. The only other sophomore in the SEC with more TFL and sacks than Ware and Allen is LSU’s Arden Key. Keep in mind that Ware is not typically on the field in UK’s nickel package, so he’s getting the bulk of his sacks and TFL on downs that aren’t obvious passing downs.
Nevertheless, Ware has a tendency to disappear at times. He wasn’t a disruptive factor against Florida, Alabama, or New Mexico State. He doesn’t have to play every game as well as he did versus South Carolina, but he - like a lot of these young players - needs to improve his consistency. He plays hard, and if he can get the other aspects of the game down, he will be dangerous.
Derrick Baity - Everybody look at you strange, say you changed. Like you work that hard to stay the same
Derrick Baity is low-key playing the best football on this side of the ball as of late. The true sophomore field corner has 16 tackles good for 5% of all the team’s tackles, and has also registered two interceptions and three pass break-ups. After being torched versus Florida, and at times versus New Mexico State, he’s shown notable improvement the last two weeks.
He’s an increasingly improved open field tackler. On 2nd-and-2 against ‘Bama, he was matched in the open field against future first round pick Calvin Ridley. Despite probably playing too far off the line of scrimmage, eight yards, he quickly closes on the receiver bubble screen. This puts his closing speed on full display. Also, good angle pursuit from Josh Allen here.
Later, on 2nd-and-10, Baity again has good coverage on Ridley (while JD Harmon does a sneaky corner blitz from the boundary side). The Crimson Tide look to have run three verticals here, forcing what looks like a Cover 3 zone to essentially turn into man coverage. Baity again did his job with great coverage.
Earlier in the game, Alabama tries to get cute running a sweep with Cam Swims. Allen keeps his outside shoulder free, and makes the tackle, but watch how fast Baity responds to fill the outside lane in run support. He’s a physical football player.
From A Broader Perspective...
These five Horsemen are playing great football at the moment, augmenting the wider team effort, and it simplifying the defense appears to be more causative than correlative.
Other young players such as true sophomore boundary corner Chris Westry, and redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Adrian Middleton are also making contributions. In Westry’s case, some of his stats are lower because teams aren’t testing him like they are testing Baity (who is mostly responding). On the other hand, without the benefit of All-22 film sweeping conclusions may not capture all the nuance. At this juncture, I feel comfortable stating Baity has had the more impressive season between the two.
Middleton, on the other hand, is playing increasingly well at the defensive tackle position. If he could tackle better in the backfield he would have a handful of TFL’s for himself. I think he’ll get there since he’s already doing the harder job of beating offensive linemen, but he needs to finish plays more consistently.
This defense is young and the inexperienced tend to be inconsistent. There will probably be hair-pulling moments ahead of us. Hopefully there will be less of those moments now that the defense has simplified.