University of Kentucky defensive coordinator Steve Brown has quietly orchestrated a nice little climb up the charts for a unit that had been maligned for most of the past decade.
The Wildcats were 118th in total defense when Brown took over in 2007. That number climbed to 67th following his first year and 40th in 2008. After being 99th in scoring defense before Brown took the reigns, the Cats finished 35th last fall.
But when you consider that Kentucky had nowhere to go but up, Brown's real challenge might come now. Can the UK defense continue to ascend under his tutelage, or has it reached its zenith?
Many of the key components who helped spark the turnaround are gone. Linebacker Wesley Woodyard, who was the heart and soul of the defense, left in 2007. Two more veteran linebackers, Braxton Kelley and Johnny Williams, were lost from last year's squad.
The biggest hit came on the defensive line. Tackle Myron Pryor and end Ventrell Jenkins are in NFL camps, and the Wildcats were dealt an unexpected blow when star end Jeremy Jarmon was ruled ineligible for his senior year by the NCAA for testing positive for a banned substance.
But Brown, who played cornerback for eight years in the NFL with the Houston Oilers, hasn't spent the summer sitting in his office crying about the personnel losses.
He still has two All-America-caliber players in senior defensive back Trevard Lindley and senior linebacker Micah Johnson, and Lindley just might be the best cornerback in the country.
And Brown is excited about the potential of several youngsters who will become full-time players in 2009, such as sophomore safety Winston Guy and sophomore linebacker Danny Trevathan.
Brown recalled his days as an assistant with the NFL's St. Louis Rams when asked about losing key players.
"I remember we lost (quarterback) Trent Green in a pre-season game," Brown said. "People thought the world was coming to an end. Then, all of a sudden, Kurt Warner came out of nowhere, and we ended up winning the Super Bowl. We've lost some good guys on defense, but we've still got some players who have played at a high level in this league and some good young guys we think can eventually play at a high level."
UK figures to be solid in the secondary, led by Lindley. Sophomore cornerback Randall Burden followed up a strong Liberty Bowl with a solid spring, and Paul Warford, a 14-game starter at corner who redshirted last year, returns. And the coaching staff says Guy has All-Southeastern Conference potential at safety.
Johnson's return and the expected breakout of Trevathan eases Brown's concerns at linebacker.
Perhaps the key to the entire defense lies in the front four. Corey Peters returns at tackle, but both ends must be replaced, including Jarmon (17.5 career sacks), who likely would have challenged Oliver Barnett's career sack record of 26 if he had been able to return.
Brown will rely on four players early to fill the huge void at the end positions: sophomore Chandler Burden, redshirt freshmen Collins Ukwu and Taylor Wyndham, and junior-college transfer DeQuin Evans.
But no matter which combination Brown sends out to start the season opener against Miami (Ohio), neither player will have made a tackle in a collegiate game.
Once again, Brown went back to a past experience, recalling Lindley's first start against Louisville in 2006.
"He had never played a down," Brown said. "I was nervous about that, too. But he ended up doing OK. Obviously it hurts to lose a player of Jeremy's caliber, but I believe we've got four young players here who are going to be really, really good. You look forward to them doing as much if not more than what Jeremy did."
The biggest concern for the Cats could be the pass rush. UK's 32 sacks last season were the most of the Brooks era, and Peters (four sacks) and fellow tackle Ricky Lumpkin (one) are the only players with sacks on their college résumés.
Brown says the back seven will be good enough to carry the load while the defensive line finds itself.
"If we're not as good up front, we've just got to do that much better of a job at linebacker and in the secondary," Brown said. "We've got to either create some stuff or just cover a little bit longer. It all works hand-in-hand."
One of the few criticisms Brown has faced during his short and successful tenure is that he doesn't take enough chances with elaborate blitz packages or fancy coverage schemes.
Brown said he takes a lot of his defensive philosophy from longtime Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Bud Carson, who was the coordinator when Brown started his stint with the Rams in 1995.
"Bud taught me that if you can get pressure with four (linemen), do it with four and play defense," he said. "I like to think we have a well-rounded package where we can do a number of things but, in the past, we tried to do a lot of stuff, and all we did was get gashed. Our personality is to just play fast and sound. We don't have the fastest defense in the SEC, but what has allowed us to play fast is the kids' ability to know what they're doing and to react fast.
"In year's past, it's been kind of, 'I'm not sure, I don't want to make a mistake, so they play slow. Now we're allowing them to play fast and, if they make a mistake, we teach them."
Brown also added that chances were harder to take considering Kentucky's youth on offense last year.
"We didn't want to put ourselves in a hole and lose the game," Brown said. "If I make a call and it doesn't work, then I've got the head man on the headset going, 'What in the world?' If I'm the head coach and defensive coordinator, then I can't make a bad call."
While UK's 2008 defense was pretty good, it didn't turn out to be the top-25 unit that many had expected before the season. That's one reason Brown is expecting more in 2009 despite the high personnel turnover.
"We improved from the year before, which is what you always try to do," Brown said. "But as a coach and as players, I don't think we met our own expectations. We want to make sure we meet our expectations and then some this year."