Though the drumbeat is surely upbeat about this upcoming Kentucky football season, there is one thing that could drag down those Big Blue dreams.
“We have to do a better job stopping the run,” head coach Mark Stoops said at the start of fall camp.
And he said it again. And again. And again. And when he wasn’t saying it, his new defensive coordinator, Matt House, freshly promoted after one year as outside linebackers coach, was repeating the same mantra.
“We want to improve our run defense,” House said.
All with good reason. Kentucky ranked 110th out of 128 FBS teams last year against the run, allowing an average of 228.2 rushing yards per game. Among the 14 SEC teams, only Missouri (112th) and Ole Miss (120th) had less success stopping the run.
Even in the less than stellar history of Kentucky football, last year’s team allowed the most average rushing yards since Bill Curry’s 1994 team gave up 272.2 yards per game. Coming off a 1993 Peach Bowl appearance, that ’94 edition finished a disastrous 1-10, defeating Louisville in the opener before dropping 10 straight.
Eight of UK’s 13 opponents last season rushed for at least 200 yards. Tennessee gained a season-high 376 in its 49-36 win over the Cats in Knoxville. (UK rushed for 443 yards of its own that day at Neyland Stadium.) Paul Johnson’s triple-option offense at Georgia Tech rushed for 266 yards in the Yellow Jackets’ 33-18 Taxslayer Bowl win over Kentucky in Jacksonville.
Given those numbers, plus the fact UK was 107th in turnover margin, it’s quite remarkable Stoops’ troops were able to win seven games and earn the program’s first bowl berth since 2010.
To think Kentucky could give up similar numbers this season and duplicate last year’s bottom-line results would be pushing the bounds of luck. Thus the focus on improving the run defense.
“I think our run defense has improved,” said House two weeks into fall camp. “We’re not there yet but I think we’re becoming more stout in there.”
We’re not there yet but I think we’re becoming more stout in there.
Defensive coordinator Matt House on UK’s run defense
To be fair, last year’s run defense was crippled before camp even started. Regie Meant, a junior defensive tackle expected to anchor the line, was unavailable for the start of fall practice because of what was termed a “personal issue.” Meant later transferred to Jacksonville State.
Without Meant, Stoops and then line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh were forced to mix and match along the defensive front, using an undersized Courtney Miggins at tackle and force-feeding young players such as tackle Adrian Middleton, a 6-foot-3, 275-pounder from South Warren High School in Bowling Green.
Brumbaugh has moved on to Maryland, where he is sharing defensive coordinator duties with another former UK assistant, Andy Buh. His replacement, Derrick LeBlanc, previously at North Texas, is soft-spoken but focused on improvement.
“We’re getting better against the run,” LeBlanc said during camp. “We’re working on getting our pad level lower, being more aggressive. We’re making progress.”
Naquez Pringle, a junior college transfer, outplayed Matt Elam for the starting nose guard job last year and is back for his senior season. Now more experienced, Middleton should be improved for his junior season. T.J. Carter received some snaps as a true freshman last season and earned praise for play during camp. Calvin Taylor, a 6-9, 305-pounder from Augusta, Ga., was brought in as a project but has progressed to where he could be a contributor this season.
8Number of teams that rushed for 200-or-more yards against UK in 2016
Then there’s Phil Hoskins, a junior college transfer coming off an injury, who the coaches believe can help right away. And Quinton Bohanna, a true freshman defensive lineman from Cordova, Tenn., who had the coaches glowing early in drills.
There’s more to stopping the run than the defensive line, of course. Standout linebacker Jordan Jones, a preseason All-SEC pick, must continue to mature and produce. Outside linebackers Denzil Ware and Josh Allen, both excellent pass rushers, must be technically sound against the run. And the secondary must provide strong run support.
“So much of it is about the fundamentals,” Stoops said.
“We need more TFLs,” said House, using short-hand for tackles-for-loss. “We just need to be fundamentally sound and not give up big runs.”
That is if Kentucky wants to realize its dream of a big season.
Kentucky’s 10 worst rushing defenses
Top 10 rushing defenses in 2016
San Diego State