UK Football

Mark Stoops identifies one Kentucky weakness he thinks he can fix quickly

Kentucky’s coach was rather cryptic when discussing his plans to fix the defense.

On his weekly call-in show, Tom Leach asked Coach Mark Stoops if he might be planning to take a more active role in fixing the Cats’ woeful defense.

“Yes,” Stoops said.

Care to expound? “Not really.”

So while fans are left to ponder what that means for the UK defense, which is among the worst in the nation in nearly every statistical category, earlier in the day Stoops did make it clear that part of his more active role would be in getting the secondary in shape.

The longtime defensive backs coach couldn’t hide his displeasure with the Cats’ corners, safeties and nickels after the 45-7 loss at Florida that included touchdown passes of 78 yards, 28 yards and 26 yards.

All of that was against a Kentucky secondary that Stoops hailed as one of the best in the nation before the start of this 0-2 season with New Mexico State (1-1) coming to Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday.

“We thought we were going to have some guys that could cover some people, but we’re not playing very good there today as well,” Stoops said after the loss in Gainesville.

The first long touchdown, in which quarterback Luke Del Rio found Antonio Callaway for 78 yards, was especially irritating for UK’s coaches.

“Twice we were cut short with the secondary,” defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. “They were supposed to be deep players, and they didn’t play the deep ball. So that was disappointing on a couple of those.”

Stoops called that long shot “the second roundhouse right to our chin there.

“That was deflating to us. That’s where, you know, again, you have to face adversity better than we did,” he said.

A couple of days after the debacle at The Swamp, Stoops was upset still with the play of the secondary.

All of his offseason compliments aren’t exactly off, but the coach said maybe players like Chris Westry, Derrick Baity, Blake McClain, Marcus McWilson and Mike Edwards need a refresher course.

“You try to talk nice about (players in the secondary), but they listened to it,” he said. “And if you don’t do the work, it isn’t worth anything.

“They’re good kids, they mean well, they just don’t understand yet, and they’re sophomores. And I’ll be in their meeting today. Their football IQ’s gonna go up.”

McClain, a senior who plays both the free safety and nickelback spots, said after the Florida loss that his is a room full of guys who want to improve.

He thinks they’ll be receptive to what Stoops has to say this week.

“We’ve just got to get to the film and keep working,” McClain said. “Nothing really to talk about. We lost, and just get to the film and keep working.”

In the opener against Southern Miss, when UK squandered a 25-point lead and eventually lost 44-35, the secondary was doing too much to try to make up for Kentucky’s problems stopping the run.

Obviously the defensive numbers — No. 125 (out of 128 teams nationally) in points allowed at 44.5 per game so far, No. 123 in total defense, allowing 542 yards, and in the bottom 17 percent statistically in pass defense and run defense — point to a larger problem than the secondary.

There have been breakdowns starting with the line and rippling on back. But the fact that UK is allowing nearly a first down (9.5 yards) on every pass play, which is ninth-worst in the country, is alarming to Stoops.

The problems on the line and with some of the linebackers might take longer to solve because of youth and inexperience in the front seven, but Stoops seemed confident the secondary is something he can fix.

Part of it is them taking responsibility and becoming a factor. The head coach also promised to send reinforcements by working in four-star true freshman Jordan Griffin, rated the No. 15 cornerback in the nation by Rivals.com.

“There’s no getting around it: You better man up and win some one-on-ones,” Stoops said he’s told his defensive backs for decades. “You’re not gonna win ’em all. You play very good players, and they’re gonna win some, but we have to get our share, and right now we’re not getting our share.”

Next game

New Mexico State at Kentucky

4 p.m. Saturday (SEC Network alternate channel)

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