John Clay: Emphasis on defense will pay off

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 25, 2013 

Offense is sexy and entertaining and buzz-worthy, and the primary reason most people give up their hard-earned money to sit in stadiums and have a little fun.

But — or should we say head butt? — at the end of the day, or the end of 60 minutes, or the end of the season, to be successful, you've got to stop somebody.

Here's what we're talking about:

In each of the past four seasons in the nation's toughest conference, Alabama has led the SEC in total defense.

In three of the past four seasons, Alabama has won the national championship.

Now that's the sure sign of a good time.

When was the last time Kentucky led the SEC in total defense, you ask?

Hint: Jimmy Carter was president. Seattle Slew won the Kentucky Derby. Laverne & Shirley was the highest-rated TV show. Annie Hall won the Oscar for best picture.

It was a long, long time ago.

The year was 1977, the year of Art Still, Mike Martin, Mike Siganos, Dallas Owens and Jerry Blanton, just to name a few Big Blue stars on the defensive side of the ball. It also was the year Kentucky went 10-1 overall and 6-0 in the SEC.

It was the last year UK had a dominant defense.

Enter Mark Stoops. He's the head coach, yes, and he's the first Kentucky head coach who built his reputation on defense, where his Florida State Seminoles ranked No. 2 in the nation last season behind — you guessed it — Alabama.

True, Rich Brooks had been the defensive coordinator for the NFL's Atlanta Falcons before he was UK head coach from 2003 through 2009. But Brooks built his reputation in college as the head coach at Oregon, where he lifted the Ducks out of the basement and into the Rose Bowl.

Before that, Fran Curci was a college quarterback at Miami before becoming the UK head coach in 1973. Jerry Claiborne had been head coach at Virginia Tech (1961-70) and Maryland (1972-81) before becoming UK's coach in 1982. Bill Curry, UK's coach from 1990 through 1996, was a former NFL center.

Hal Mumme was the "Air Raid" architect when he was plucked from Division II Valdosta State to be UK's head coach in 1997. His successor, Guy Morriss, was a former NFL offensive lineman, who led the Kentucky program for two years before leaving for Baylor, leaving the opening that Brooks filled and former Kentucky wide receiver Joker Phillips assumed upon Brooks' retirement.

All the while, UK had some decent defenses, but never one good enough to be labeled overwhelming, or good enough to even help the Cats to a winning conference record.

No wonder UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart decided to try a different recipe for success this time. As UK slid to a 2-10 mark last season and Phillips lost his job, the Cats ranked dead last in the SEC in third-down conversion defense, 13th in scoring defense and 11th in total defense.

"We started to give up 25, 30 and 35 points a game, and in this league you're not going to have success at the level you want if you can't stop somebody," Barnhart said the day Stoops' hiring was announced. "I wanted us to be better defensively so we didn't have to be perfect on offense."

That's not likely to happen in Stoops' inaugural season, however. Even at Florida State, Stoops needed three years to get the Seminoles from a defense ranked in the 100s to one that led the nation in fewest yards allowed for much of the 2012 season.

The head coach appears to have the makings of a stout defensive line with veteran tackles Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph, plus talented ends Za'Darius Smith and Alvin "Bud" Dupree.

Beyond senior Avery Williamson, however, linebackers are a huge question mark. The secondary is small and thin, especially with the loss of sophomore J.D. Harmon to academics.

And yet, with Stoops and new coordinator D.J. Eliot, who coached the defensive ends at FSU, there is a reason to think a different direction can pay dividends.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: Johnclay.bloginky.com.

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