Spring practice began Tuesday unofficially kicking off the start of the 2016 season.
Spring practice, unfortunately, seems to be a critical rite for UK football. Like previous seasons, UK is implementing a new offensive system under Mark Stoops, but also imperative this spring is rebbuilding depth in the front seven.
UK's defense lost eight players who were listed in the two-deep in late November. The returning players on that list were almost universally underweight for their positions, and that doesn't even include the younger players buried deeper on the depth chart. Check out the heights and weights of the underclassmen linemen and linebackers from last fall. Now try not to shudder when keeping in mind listed heights and weights are usually exaggerated.
The young, inexperienced, and underweight players had to all have a productive winter workout season. The second string will now be the starters in most places, and the third string will percolate to the second string. They will face grizzled veterans in the unforgiving trenches this fall. Encouraging, then, if the following is true:
Stoops said he can tell players have been working on their own in offseason https://t.co/2Degzn78zN— Jon Hale (@JonHale_CJ) March 8, 2016
Better offseason for team than in previous seasons, Stoops said.— Jen Smith (@jenheraldleader) March 8, 2016
Depth along the front seven was the single biggest issue with the defense last season. UK's offense wasn't efficient enough to keep them off the field, and meanwhile typically saddled them with poor field position. This wore on the players across the span of grueling season, specifically defending against the run as I show below.
But first, let's clear up a possible misconception.
What Wasn't The Problem
The pass defense was solid last season, according to the raw numbers. UK's secondary gave up 806 yards in the air in September, 1053 yards in October, but closed strong by allowing only 518 yards in November. Some of that variance is due to varying degrees of competition, but the results are encouraging when compared to the rest of the SEC.
UK was fifth in total pass defense, 8th in passes defended, and had 11 interceptions. Allowing third down conversions 39% of the time is too high, but is an improvement from 43% in the previous season.
UK's pass defense managed those numbers despite a defensive line that was last in sacks and tackles for loss in the SEC. The young secondary got very little help from their front seven teammates on passing downs, but three of four starters return (four of five if you count nickel back). The future is bright in the back.
So What Was The Issue? Depth In The Front Seven.
It's the tip of the spear that's concerning. The rush defense got worst as the season progressed. Kentucky allowed 673 yards rushing in September, 785 yards in October, and finally, 895 yards in November. The yards racked up as the season progressed at a pace that likely isn't only due to facing strong offenses in October. The percentage increases are an indicator of a thin front seven wheezing to the finish line. There weren't enough able bodies to finish the season strong.
The table below is the full breakdown of average yards per rush allowed broken down by game and quarter.
The numbers illustrate UK's defense against the run worsened as the season progressed, and in most cases, also declined throughout the course of individual games.
The best performances against the run came in the first half in 9 out of 12 games when legs were fresh, UK hadn't fallen behind, and gameplans remained intact. The second halves themselves tended to have a bit more variance (several different factors at play), but crucially, rarely were both the third and fourth quarters instances of exemplary defensive play.
The defense's front seven has multiple question marks relative to the rest of the team. Will the JUCO defensive linemen taken in the 2015 class follow in the footsteps of Za'Darius Smith, Melvin Lewis, and Cory Johnson and show significant improvement in their second season of P5 play? Can Matt Elam take his "junior leap forward"?
Will the talented young linebackers UK signed in the 2014 and 2015 classes add enough bulk to contribute to the 2016 campaign? Will the P5 linebacker transfers immediately contribute?
We have until September 3rd to contemplate, debate, and ponder. What's inarguable is the entire group's importance to UK finding success in September, and then maintaining cruising altitude well into November. To do so requires broad development in the weightroom and on the practice field for many players who are being called to serve earlier than most of their SEC brethren.