Need a little perspective on how far Kentucky’s run defense has come?
Imagine this: In just three quarters last season, Florida rolled up as many yards on the ground against UK as all three Kentucky opponents have managed combined this season.
In that lopsided egg the Cats laid in Gainesville last season, Florida had 40 carries for 171 yards and two touchdowns in three quarters.
Kentucky’s first three opponents this season —Southern Mississippi, Eastern Kentucky and South Carolina — combined to run for 171 yards on their 78 attempts and scored just one rushing touchdown among them.
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That’s how dramatically different UK’s run defense is compared to a year ago.
Coach Mark Stoops noted improved technique by the defensive line and some minor structural changes.
There are a few schematic tweaks from week to week, too, but there hasn’t been a dramatic overhaul of the defense, the coaches and players said.
“It comes from guys being around, it comes from strength and depth,” said Stoops, whose team went from the No. 110 rushing defense in the country a season ago, allowing 228.2 yards per game, to the No. 3 rushing defense this season giving up 57 on average.
There’s a lot of things that go into it. But the number one thing it starts with is pride. The guys have a great sense of pride about them to do things the right way.
The Cats haven’t allowed an opponent to gain more than 62 yards on the ground this season as they prepare to take on No. 20 Florida on Saturday night at Kroger Field.
“There’s a lot of things that go into it. But the number one thing it starts with is pride,” Stoops said. “The guys have a great sense of pride about them to do things the right way.”
Courtney Love, who is second on the team in tackles this season with 23 including a pass breakup and a forced fumble, said there’s a different demeanor in the defensive room now.
“The biggest thing is our attitude, our straining, our want to go to the ball, our want to get to the play, doing our job and doing our job with an edge, with an attitude,” Love said.
The senior leader pointed to himself as an example of a turnaround.
A season ago, he didn’t trust his instincts as much. He worried about committing too quickly and getting burned downfield.
He started watching fellow inside linebacker Jordan Jones, who led the team in tackles last season, both in game and in film.
“As a linebacker, you’ve got to be able to get downhill and hit guys,” he said. “I didn’t do that enough. Jordan was doing that. He was getting downhill and blowing things up. He would just go. He trusted his instincts. I didn’t do that all the time. I didn’t trust myself enough.”
That’s changed this season for Love. And because he’s doing his job more effectively, the defensive line has been more effective, too.
“That’s something that’s really helping us because if I can get downhill, it’s helping one of the blockers get freed up and they’re not getting doubled as much.”
And while these changes sound insignificant, they’ve been significant for Kentucky’s defense, which at this point last season was allowing 243 rushing yards per game and had given up eight rushing touchdowns.
“These sound like really minute things, but they show up huge when you try to correct it,” Love said. “For our defense, it’s been the strain, the attitude, the willingness to prepare to win.”
If those three things sound like a sign of maturity, that seems to be a key, too.
Kentucky’s defense had to replace a huge chunk of its front seven a year ago. This season, the Cats returned seven of their top 10 tacklers from 2016, including their top four in Jones, Edwards, Love and Denzil Ware.
The man who had to game plan against Kentucky’s run defense all preseason knew pretty early in fall camp that the group had improved.
“It’s just the maturity,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said when asked why the run defense is so much better. “You had guys last year that didn’t play a lot of football that have one more year under their belt. They’re doing a great job.
“It was harder this camp to run against our defense. That’s a good thing. Hopefully they’re saying the same thing about us.”
Sophomore running back Benny Snell sees the difference every day in practice. Kentucky’s defense makes it hard to get yards in bunches.
“They do a great job,” Snell said of UK’s run defense. “I don’t know if they get the credit like they should, but they do a great job. I’m happy to have a defense like we do and going against them every day. They make me better. I hope I make them better. I’m very impressed.”
So is Stoops, who doesn’t impress easily. On Wednesday’s league teleconference he noted that the rush defense has “drastically improved.”
Then he added of Saturday’s game against Florida, which won 45-7 a season ago in Gainesville: “We’ll get a real test this week.”
So far, the Gators’ offense hasn’t been a machine. They are No. 122 (out of 130) nationally in total offense averaging just 286 yards per game, worst in the SEC.
They are averaging just 89 yards on the ground in two games and have zero rushing touchdowns.
Kentucky’s head coach has been a part of building stout defenses at places like Florida State and Miami. He sees some similarities in what this defense is doing now and becoming, including players holding one another accountable.
“We have guys who take great pride in the way we’re going about our work and each yard and each first down,” Stoops said. “You’ve got to have a mentality that those yards and those first downs are personal and I’m starting to feel that from this group.”
The other thing being overlooked is the depth Kentucky has displayed three games into the season. So far the Cats have used 24 different players on defense, which allows for fresher minds and bodies late in the game.
That will help a lot as UK gets into games against teams that play higher-tempo offenses, new defensive coordinator Matt House said.
And those backups that Kentucky is getting in the game are gaining confidence with each snap.
“There’s not one guy in our two-deep that hasn’t seen live game action when the game’s in the balance, when snaps matter,” House said. “I think that’s huge.”
No. 20 Florida at Kentucky
7:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network)