UK Football

Kentucky’s Stoops excited to see what comes from retooled defensive staff

Mark Stoops says he’s emphasizing increased aggression by the defense this spring.
Mark Stoops says he’s emphasizing increased aggression by the defense this spring. palcala@herald-leader.com

Kentucky’s basketball coach isn’t the only one discussing reboots this spring.

So is UK football coach Mark Stoops, who met with the media Monday as the Cats begin spring practice.

His reboot isn’t a complete overhaul, but more about getting several new staff members on the defensive side of the ball this season, including new coordinator Matt House.

Stoops said it’s been fun “to see what we can do and what we evolved to defensively and kind of strip it all down and start over.

“I feel very good about it,” Stoops said of the new-look staff that includes new defensive line coach Derrick LeBlanc and special teams coordinator/outside linebackers coach Dean Hood.

“I feel very good about Matt and his leadership, and I know the players are responding very well to him, and so it’s been good,” said Stoops, whose team started spring practice Sunday. It will continue Tuesday morning.

So while there’s continuity from some of the success that Kentucky had last season, there’s also an influx of new ideas from House, who was promoted from his role last season of inside linebackers and special teams coach.

“There’s carryover, but there’s also a very clear identity of what we want to look like as we move forward,” said Stoops, a former defensive coordinator.

One change from last season is Stoops is giving back the play-calling duties to House after taking them over a couple of games into last season when the Cats’ defense had given up 500-plus yards in back-to-back games.

“Matt will call the plays,” Stoops said of House, a former defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh and Florida International. “You know, just like it always has been.”

Stoops said he assumed the play-calling duties last season from then-defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot (now the defensive coordinator at Colorado) because, “I’m going to always help where needed, and sometimes it’s just about the person in front of them talking to them and holding their feet to the fire,” Stoops said.

“Matt will call the plays and be the defensive coordinator,” the coach continued, “and I’ll be there to assist.”

One of the main themes a week ago when Hood, the former head coach at Eastern Kentucky University, and LeBlanc met with the media was getting more aggressive defensively.

It’s definitely something Stoops would like to see after spending part of the offseason watching game tape and cut-ups, especially after watching UK struggle on third down.

“There were some things that we know we need to do better, and part of that is creating negative-yardage plays,” Stoops said. “We had too many third-and-shorts last year, too many third-and-mediums; too many third-and-shorts, and too many first downs.”

Kentucky was 13th in the Southeastern Conference on third down, allowing opponents to convert 44.4 percent of the time on those plays. It was a key factor in wins and losses.

In losses last season, UK allowed opponents to convert on third down 53 percent of the time, compared to 37.1 percent in Cats victories.

Third-down play is an area of emphasis for almost every defense at this time of the year, though, he said.

Who’s in, who’s out

Kentucky tight end C.J. Conrad will sit out spring practices while coming back from an offseason surgery, Stoops confirmed. Conrad played in all 13 games last season and had 19 catches for 262 yards and four touchdowns.

He joins a few others on the injured list, including Alvonte Bell (knee surgery), quarterbacks Drew Barker and Walker Wood, who both are coming back from offseason surgeries as well as running back Bryant Koback.

The freshman running back and mid-year enrollee said in January that he was sitting out the spring while coming back from a broken leg in high school.

As for Barker, Stoops said the junior is not at full strength, but is improving. Doctors plan to reassess the quarterback, who had back surgery in November, after spring break next week.

Right now doctors are limiting how far Barker is allowed to throw the ball. The junior was the Cats’ starter for the first three games before being sidelined with the back injury and Stephen Johnson took over.

Several players who missed much of last season with injuries are healthy for spring football, including wide receiver Kayaune Ross, tight end Justin Rigg and safety Darius West, Stoops said.

“I’m excited about him because we all know he was going to be a player last year,” Stoops said of West, who suffered a knee injury in the preseason. “He would have played a bunch or maybe won the job. He was right in there battling for the starting position when he got hurt.”

Firios latest linebacker to leave

Kentucky linebacker Nico Firios is leaving the program, he announced on Twitter on Monday. Firios is the second linebacker to announce plans this offseason to part ways with UK, joining graduate transfer De’Niro Laster.

“I’m forever grateful for this opportunity,” Firios wrote. “I am always going to be a Wildcat! The Big Blue Nation will always have a very special place in my heart.”

Firios, a 6-foot-2 junior from Longwood, Fla., was sidelined by multiple surgeries during his time at UK. Last season, he played in all 13 games, mostly on special teams, amassing five total tackles.

He finished his UK career playing in 16 games with six tackles.

With the departure of Firios, UK appears to be over the 85 scholarship limit, by two. That count isn’t official and includes the scholarships awarded last season to offensive tackle Cole Mosier and wide-out Charles Walker.

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

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