UK Football

Winning turnover battle the talk of Kentucky football kickoff luncheon

Positive outlook from coaches during UK Football Kickoff Luncheon

UK football head coach Mark Stoops, defensive coordinator Matt House, and offensive coordinator Eddie Gran give positive remarks on the team during the Kentucky Football Kickoff Luncheon in the Woodford Reserve Club at Kroger Field.
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UK football head coach Mark Stoops, defensive coordinator Matt House, and offensive coordinator Eddie Gran give positive remarks on the team during the Kentucky Football Kickoff Luncheon in the Woodford Reserve Club at Kroger Field.

During talking season, all is shiny and new.

Games are discussed in the abstract and players in the positive.

But there’s one point of contention during this banquet circuit for Kentucky’s coaches: turnovers.

For the defense, it’s creating more of them this season.

For the offense, it’s not giving up so many.

For the head coach, it’s finding a way to solve both problems before the season opener on Sept. 2 at Southern Mississippi.

“Turnover margin is the biggest area where we need to make some improvement,” Coach Mark Stoops told a group of Big Blue backers at Kroger Field during Tuesday’s kickoff luncheon.

The team reports later this week and will have its first practice and official media day on Sunday.

“I’d like to see us take care of the football better and create some more turnovers,” Stoops continued. “We put ourselves in some situations last year. Fortunately, we came out on top of some of those games. We found a way to win.”

A few seconds later, he added, “but you’d like to make it a little easier on yourself. Turnover margin is a big piece of that.”

Last season, despite advancing to its first bowl game in six seasons, Kentucky had a serious problem with turnovers (both forced and forcing). The Cats were No. 107 out of 128 teams in turnover margin nationally with a minus-7 turnover margin.

They were worst in the Southeastern Conference in that stat. Arkansas was the next worst (minus-4).

The defense forced 21 turnovers in all (eight forced fumbles, 13 picks) and the UK offense coughed the ball up 28 times: 16 forced fumbles and 12 interceptions.

Not usually a winning formula, even for those who are math challenged.

Both new defensive coordinator Matt House and offensive coordinator Eddie Gran discussed some of their offseason work to flip those numbers.

This spring, UK’s offensive coaches tried to create difficult drills and situations that will better prepare the players for holding on to the ball. For his part, quarterback Stephen Johnson, who was tied for second nationally in fumbles with six (four others were recovered by UK), has done extra strength work on his forearms, hands and fingers.

“This spring, the stress we put on them, we definitely got better,” Gran said. “But we’ve got a long ways to go. If we can just cut (our turnovers) in half, we’ve got a chance to be top in the country, and we can do that.”

For the defense, which forced six of its 13 interceptions in the final three games of the regular season, there was significant improvement late, the coaches said.

They’d still like to see more.

That plan this offseason has included what House called a “turnover circuit” where players are drilled on tackling the quarterback and the second guy there focusing on stripping the ball.

“The first thing is just swarming the football,” House said in explaining his plan of action. “The more hats you put on the football, the more chance there is to take the ball away.”

‘A lot of potential’

The position group most maligned this offseason is the defensive line.

“They don’t want to hear this talk anymore,” Stoops said. “So they’ve worked really hard and hopefully will step up.”

Specifically, Stoops mentioned players such as Adrian Middleton, T.J. Carter, Kengera Daniel and others who are making big strides this offseason.

He also gave a nod to Matt Elam, who took some heat this summer for not being a star at his spot after three seasons at UK.

“Matt cares, he cares a great deal,” Stoops said of the five-star nose guard. “He wants to be successful. He knows he’s going into his senior year.”

The coaches gave the players some downtime this week to let their bodies recover before the start of camp, but Stoops said he saw the defensive linemen working together that morning.

“I saw him out there,” Stoops said of Elam. “He was out there with some fellow defensive linemen working hard.”

There was significant improvement this spring under new position coach Derrick LeBlanc, House said.

“It’s a group that has a lot of potential,” House said. “Derrick has done a great job of detailing technique at that position and I think Coach made it a big point of challenging those guys in the spring.

“I’m really, really excited to see them in training camp because I think there’s been a steady improvement.”

Of the returning defensive linemen, only starting nose tackle Naquez Pringle recorded a sack. He also had two tackles for loss.

But of UK’s tackles for loss last season, only 11.6 percent of them came from players returning to the defensive line.

Kroger Field signage going up

Blue, block-print lettering similar to the kind found on the nearby Nutter Field House reading “Kroger Field” is now officially up on the side of the stadium formerly known as Commonwealth.

There’s still no logo or lettering at the front of the stadium facing Nicholasville Road, but the marquee got a fresh coat of blue paint last week and is expected to be filled soon.

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader