Clearly, it’s a statistic that irritates Mark Stoops as much as any Kentucky fan.
Last season, Stoops’ Cats managed just 17 sacks. That’s only nine more than the worst team in the country. Only 15 teams in the nation had fewer.
And the tackles for loss? Kentucky managed just 53 of those. Only five teams in the country collected fewer.
“Disruptive” is not a word that would be used to describe the Cats’ defense last season, and it bugs the head coach, who has been a defensive guy his entire career.
Never miss a local story.
“We know how to get to the quarterback,” Stoops said in his news conference on Monday leading up to the Cats’ season opener versus Southern Miss.
“My first year I went to Florida State and everybody told me we don’t have anybody that can rush. We don’t have the guys we used to, and all we did my very first year was lead the country in sacks.”
The key for Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot will be finding those pass rushers on this team.
It will be a tall order. UK returns just three players who recorded at least one sack last season — Denzil Ware, Marcus McWilson and Chris Westry — and the total number of sacks UK’s returnees produced was 3 1/2. McWilson and Westry got theirs from the secondary.
The only returning player with more than two tackles for a loss last season is Ware, but he’s feeling much better about where he is now than a season ago when he recorded 5 1/2 tackles for a loss and one sack.
“I see a big difference from last year to now,” said Ware, who had 10 tackles — five for a loss with four sacks — in the Blue-White Spring Game.
“I was still trying to learn the playbook, plus play, but now I know my whole playbook,” he said on Thursday. “I know my whole job, my whole responsibility. I know what I’m supposed to do on the field and also what everybody else is supposed to be doing.”
Ware watches film of last season and doesn’t recognize his No. 35 on the edge.
“They even show certain plays and replays of defense from last year, and there’d be two or three plays where I got put on my back or drove back,” Ware said. “It’s pretty good to see a big difference from where I am today to where I was.”
He specifically thinks about a play in the Georgia game where pretty much everything he did was wrong.
“I stepped all wrong, read the wrong key and now I’m like, ‘Dang. That’s so easy. That’s an easy play right there. That’s something I could’ve made right there,’” he said.
A better understanding of the defense and their roles in it will produce more sacks, tackles for loss and disruption on defense, said Ware and fellow outside linebacker Josh Allen.
Allen saw plenty of work to be done this offseason, too.
“It breaks my heart being out there and getting to them and being a second behind or something,” the sophomore said. “Being one step quicker could’ve changed everything. Now I’m seeing things differently and I’m capitalizing this year.”
Sometimes he has those moments where he’s a little lost or isn’t sure how to react, but last season he’d quit on a play when that happened. It’s different now.
“Josh came here in August and at the end of August he’s playing,” Eliot said of last season’s issues. “I think for Josh, he really got a chance to grow from high school to college and then on top of that, he’s gained a lot of weight.
“He’s in the 240s now in his weight and his confidence is up and his understanding of the game is much better. I think he’s really improved quite a bit from last season.”
The “timid play” and uncertainty Allen and Ware described is less of an issue this season.
“When you put a newcomer out there at times, if they’re not sure of themselves or they haven’t been there, then they do play timid and I think some of that is gone with Denzil and with Josh,” Eliot said.
And they have some help on the edges this season, too, with Minnesota transfer De’Niro Laster and players like Kobie Walker and Alvonte Bell in the mix.
It’s all been part of building a disruptive defense like the ones he and Eliot constructed at Florida State, Stoops said.
“We taught them how to win some one-on-ones, and they won some one-on-ones,” Stoops said of his Seminoles, who had a nation-best 48 sacks in 2010. They also were 12th in the country in tackles for loss that year with 95.
Southern Miss will provide an interesting litmus test for Kentucky. The Golden Eagles have a smart, savvy quarterback in senior Nick Mullens, who isn’t likely to be bothered by junk defenses and can be elusive.
“He’s pulled it (down) a few times and gotten some good yards, you know what I mean?” Eliot said. “He’s effective running the ball and scrambles well at times, too.”
But the Eagles also have a lot of new pieces offensively, including a left tackle in 6-foot-6, 275-pound senior Wil Freeman, who missed all but one game last season with an injury. Freeman has played most of his college ball on the defensive line.
Right tackle Ty Pollard (6-6, 315 pounds) hasn’t played a down of college football, sitting out last season as a redshirt.
“You’ve also got to create some pressures and do a variety of things, which we’re constantly looking at so it’ll be the same way,” Stoops said. “We have to just rush and win some one-on-ones and we have to create some pressures as well.”
Former Kentucky defensive lineman Regie Meant, who parted ways with the Cats at the start of fall camp for what Stoops called “personal reasons,” has landed at Jacksonville State and was in uniform Thursday night. Former Kentucky running back Josh Clemons, who got a sixth year of eligibility after a series of injuries, also plays for that team.
Southern Miss at Kentucky
7:30 p.m. Saturday (ESPNU)