John Clay: QBs aside, key to Cats' fortunes is a better defense

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 20, 2014 

Now that the sexy stuff is over, now that Patrick Towles has been handed the keys to the Kentucky offense, we can turn our attention to the truly important stuff, the bottom line on the balance sheet for the current gridiron Cats.

That would be the defense. You remember the defense, head coach Mark Stoops' calling card. The main reason the former Florida State defensive coordinator won the UK job in the first place was to build a top-flight unit adept at the art of keeping the other teams out of the end zone.

For one thing, Kentucky hasn't had a truly great defense since Art Still was face-planting opposing quarterbacks way back in 1977.Untangling Christmas lights has been easier than building a monster defense here.

And yet any football expert worth his weight in pigskin will yell out that while offense wins fans, defense wins games.

Last season, UK won two football games. An offense ranked 107th in the country out of 123 teams had much to do with that, of course. A defense ranked 91st did little to pick up the slack, especially one that was 109th in the country in forcing turnovers.

So, in Stoops 2.0, will the defense be improved?

"I think we have a chance to have a pretty good defense, I really do," the head coach said after Wednesday's workout. "I think if we play well in the secondary, we have a chance to be a pretty strong unit."

Don't forget linebacker, where graduation claimed heart-and-soul backer Avery Williamson.

Former Paducah Tilghman wideout Josh Forrest has impressed the coaches after a position switch. And the faster juco transfer Ryan Flannigan masters the learning curve the better. He may be the team's most intriguing newcomer.

"Josh has done a nice job," Stoops said. "Ryan Flannigan has been a nice surprise. We've got to continue to get him a lot of reps and get him ready to go."

Positive pieces are already in place. In fact, the two best football players on the entire team are probably defensive ends Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith. It has been a while since Kentucky boasted such formidable bookends.

With that in mind, Stoops needs his defensive tackles to occupy enough opponent attention to free up Dupree and Smith for sack races. Defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh has said all fall he likes his list of candidates, including the much-heralded president of the Clean Plate Club, true freshman Matt Elam.

Wide bodies, fast feet — it takes a village to play good team defense. One player isn't going to change the game. Stoops knows the process. Recruit. Develop. Recruit some more. Develop some more. Rinse and repeat.

"As you get into year two, as you get better and better, there's a balance between doing more things and/or being simpler," the coach said. "The better you are, the less you really have to do, to be honest with you."

Last year — which had to be maddening for a defensive maven — Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot were forced to scheme and scheme in hopes of hiding weaknesses. They hope to dial that back a bit in 2014.

Plus, Stoops' defenses have a recorded history of second-year leaps. Florida State skyrocketed from 108th nationally in total defense his first year as DC to No. 4 his second season.

No one is saying this is Tallahassee, but the Cats are confident. Dupree and Company have taken to calling themselves "The Bad Boys" because, you know, behind every good defense is a very good nickname.

Did they clear this one with the head coach?

"No, no, I didn't sign off any of that," Stoops said. "Well, we'll see if we play like bad boys. I've seen some bad boys before, so we'll see."

After all, the "bad" in "Bad Boys" could go either way.

"That's right," said Stoops.

This season, Kentucky needs its defense to be better boys.

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

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