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Kentucky Wildcats Football: Success starts with ‘securing the bag’

Mark Stoops identified turnover margin as one of the biggest area to improve.

NCAA Football: TaxSlayer Bowl-Kentucky vs Georgia Tech
Coach Mark Stoops (center) looks on from the bench in the second half against Georgia Tech at EverBank Field.
Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the hashtag on redshirt freshman running back A.J. Rose’s Twitter bio. It’s been acknowledged by several UK wide receivers over the years. It should be the motto for Kentucky’s offense entering the 2017 season: “secure the bag.”

According to Urban Dictionary, the definition for “securing the bag” is as follows:

An expression use to describe the act of taking/obtaining advantage of the situation and keep something of value.

1. “Play your cards right and secure the bag.”

2. “Be an intern and work full-time hours. That's how you secure the bag.”

3. “I cut him/her off but I secured the bag.”

For Kentucky’s offense in 2017, ‘obtaining advantage of the situation’ and ‘keeping something of value’ should refer to simply, holding onto the football and limiting interceptions/turnovers.

On Tuesday, UK Coach Mark Stoops spoke at the Kentucky football kickoff luncheon at the newly renamed Kroger Field, outlining a key area where coaches and players alike are looking to improve in 2017.

The Herald-Leader’s Jen Smith reports:

“Turnover margin is the biggest area where we need to make some improvement,” Coach Mark Stoops told a group of Big Blue backers at Kroger Field during Tuesday’s kickoff luncheon.

The team reports later this week and will have its first practice and official media day on Sunday.

“I’d like to see us take care of the football better and create some more turnovers,” Stoops continued. “We put ourselves in some situations last year. Fortunately, we came out on top of some of those games. We found a way to win.”

A few seconds later, he added, “but you’d like to make it a little easier on yourself. Turnover margin is a big piece of that.”

Kentucky ranked 107th out of 128 Division I teams with a -7 turnover margin last season. The Wildcat defense forced 21 turnovers, while the offense totaled 28 turnovers on its end. That’s an average of more than two offensive turnovers per game, which does not translate, at least in my mind, to ‘securing the bag.’

Smith’s article goes on to quote Offensive Coordinator Eddie Gran, who said his unit put an emphasis on avoiding turnovers in spring practice.

“If we can just cut (our turnovers) in half, we’ve got a chance to be top in the country, and we can do that,” Gran said.

Kentucky’s offense returns eight starters from last season’s Taxslayer Bowl team, while the defense returns nine. The Cats, along with Georgia, co-lead the SEC in total returning starters in the upcoming season with 17.

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Kentucky
South Carolina Gamecocks quarterback Brandon McIlwain is tackled by the Kentucky Wildcats in the first quarter at Commonwealth Stadium.
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Entering 2017, Kentucky’s biggest area of concern continues to be its defensive line. 2016 starting defensive end Courtney Miggins, who recorded 28 total tackles including four for loss and half of a sack, graduated. Defensive end Alvonte Bell, who started in four games and played in 12 last season, was dismissed in June due to a violation of team rules.

Kentucky’s defense typically lines up with three down lineman: an end, a tackle, and a nose guard, while also using a stand-up, hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker. Denzil Ware, the starter in that hybrid position, is one of Kentucky’s most talented defensive players. Beyond that, the nose guard position has some depth, with returning starter Naquez Pringle and senior Matt Elam backing him up.

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Florida
Florida Gators quarterback Luke Del Rio (14) gets pressured by Kentucky Wildcats defensive end Denzil Ware (35) during the first quarter at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Adrian Middleton is a returning starter at defensive tackle that will need to step up in order for this unit to be sustainable in 2017. The other true defensive end position is the biggest question mark. The 2017 media guide listed sophomore T.J. Carter as the current starter. Carter played in 11 games as a true freshman, recording 11 tackles and 0.5 tackles for loss. Backing up Carter is junior Kengera Daniel, who saw limited action as a freshman, and recorded just three tackles in eight games as a sophomore.

Kentucky’s overall run defense in 2016 ranked 108th in the nation and 11th in the SEC, allowing 2,700 rushing yards, or an average of 225 rush yards per game.

But is the sub-par ranking in UK’s rush defense attributed to the defensive line alone? Of course not. I would argue that this statistic does not even lie solely on the shoulders of the defense as a whole.

When an offense can’t stay on the field, sustain lengthy drives, and ‘secure the bag,’ the defensive unit has to play more minutes and, subsequently, experiences more fatigue. Offensive turnovers play a huge factor when trying to manage the clock and give the defensive a rest.

Kentucky’s clock management was at its lowest point in its first two games of 2016, where the offense committed a total of eight turnovers: an interception, two fumbles lost, and a turnover on downs against Southern Miss; and three interceptions and a fumble lost against Florida.

NCAA Football: Southern Mississippi at Kentucky
Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles running back George Payne (24) runs the ball against Kentucky Wildcats defensive end Alvonte Bell (92) at Commonwealth Stadium. Southern Mississippi defeated 44-35.
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Time of possession in the first two games:

  1. Kentucky - 19:28, Southern Miss - 40:32
  2. Kentucky - 22:34, Florida - 37:26

That’s two whole games where Kentucky’s defense was on the field nearly twice as much as its offense. While Southern Miss has a pair of solid running backs, the Golden Eagles were only slightly above average in terms of rush offense, finishing 62nd on the season. Southern Miss tallied 262 yards rushing against the Wildcats, 88 more than their 2016 overall average.

Even worse, Florida’s rush offense ranked 110th nationally and last in the SEC in 2016. The Gators ran up 244 yards on the Cats, coming close to doubling their 2016 season average of 128.2. Kentucky’s defense was on the field for 83 plays in that game (vs. just 48 for the offense), so it should be no surprise that the defense got tired and gave up more yards.

Kentucky went 6-2 in games where it had the advantage in time of possession a season ago. UK’s record when it lost the time of possession battle: 1-4.

I admit that the D-line is perhaps still the biggest area of concern headed into 2017, but not for lack of effort by the individuals in that unit. The nose guards should be able to plug holes. I expect Adrian Middleton to come back better and stronger this season. But behind Middleton and in the true defensive end position, there is little depth or experience.

But on offense, where the coaching staff has made tremendous strides in recruiting depth at nearly every position, Kentucky has to find a way to limit turnovers. If UK wants to compete for an SEC East Title, they need to lift up their weakest link, and that starts with the offense staying on the field and sustaining drives.

It also starts with game one at Southern Miss. No opening-game excuses; all of Kentucky’s offensive starters know what it’s like to play in a hostile road environment.