If you were sleeping under a boulder, you might have missed the Kentucky defense’s primary goal this preseason: Get better at stopping the run.
Giving up 200 yards or more in nine games last season, the Cats finished No. 12 in the Southeastern Conference in run defense, allowing 228.2 yards a game.
“Stopping the run is a must,” outside linebackers coach Dean Hood said. “The game hasn’t changed in 100 years. If you don’t do that, it’s a long day. You’ve got to stop there. It’s one of the primary things we want to get done.”
The season-opening game at Southern Miss, with star running back Ito Smith, should provide Kentucky with a barometer of just how much better — or worse — it is at stopping the run.
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The 5-foot-9, 193-pound senior had season highs in the opener at Kentucky last year with 173 yards and a touchdown on 36 carries and 213 all-purpose yards.
“He’s a great back, they do a great job in the run game,” new UK defensive coordinator Matt House said of the Golden Eagles, who were the No. 62 rushing offense nationally last season. “Their offensive line blocks it up well for them, finishes, so there’s no doubt. I think that will play a huge role to our success on Saturday.”
With seven of its top 10 tacklers back and experience returning at nearly every position, the defense should naturally be better at stopping the run than it was a season ago, but the coaches also have done a lot to emphasize it.
There have been more built-in team periods focused on run stop, more leverage drills, more individual tackling work.
“When you talk about missed tackles, there’s always some of that that anybody can see,” head coach Mark Stoops said. “Also a big part of it is position on the football. When you’re not playing great team defense, really good athletes are going to expose you really quickly. So, you have to have a bunch of people around the ball and in great spots.
And don’t forget that UK boasted the third-best rushing offense in the country last season, which has been a big bonus for the defense this fall, too.
“We’re pretty daggone good at offense and (the defense) has had some good days against them. And at times when we haven’t, it’s been things we can identify and fix,” Hood said. “So I feel like we’ve got a chance to be a pretty good run defense team just using the gauge of our offense.”
Some of UK’s biggest problems in stopping the run hinged on inconsistent play from the defensive line.
Expect to see more activity from that group, players on Kentucky’s offense have said after the past two scrimmages. Some added movement by those front few players has made life more difficult, quarterback Stephen Johnson said.
“We’re emphasizing getting to the ball, moving around, getting off blocks, trying to create some negative plays in the backfield,” new defensive line coach Derrick LeBlanc said. “Coach Stoops and Coach House have done a great job of changing the dynamic of our scheme and these guys have bought in. It will be fun to see some of these d-linemen in the backfield for a change, right?”
‘Just focusing on revenge’
Even though star running back Benny Snell didn’t get a carry against Southern Miss last season, the Kentucky running back still takes the loss personally.
“This is what I’ve been waiting for all summer, all through the spring, just focusing on revenge right now,” Snell said.
He remembers watching his teammates struggle as the Golden Eagles came back from 25 points down to win that game on UK’s home field.
It’s stomach-turning even for the more veteran members of Kentucky’s program. When Stoops sees a time when his players aren’t giving what he thinks is their best effort, that second-half against Southern Miss comes up.
“Every time he feels like we aren’t playing to our ability, he just says, ‘Remember what happened last year in the second half?’” junior running back Sihiem King said. “He’s always talking about that.”
It’s come up a time or two, Stoops said, adding: “You want to get in a bad mood? Put on some of that tape.”
The tape definitely puts offensive coordinator Eddie Gran in a sour mood.
“We got our tail whipped,” he said. “That’s the bottom line. We scored 35 points in the first half and we scored zero in the second half. That’s unacceptable. I think that they’ll have a good attitude going in, and then you got to learn from the mistakes.”
Could starting on road be good?
There was another lesson that Stoops hopes Kentucky took from that loss to the Golden Eagles a season ago: Not to get so jacked up that the air leaves the team at the half.
Being on the road for the opener might actually help with that, the head coach theorized.
“Sometimes in the home openers, guys are just so emotional and jacked up and through the roof where they just don’t have the poise to play a 60-minute game,” Stoops said. “So we learned from that a year ago and we have to take some of our past history — the good, the bad — and learn from it and apply it this year.”
Something else that should help Kentucky avoid a second-half collapse is more depth, especially on defense. Several players like middle linebacker Courtney Love and safety Mike Edwards played 80-plus snaps in the opener.
That can’t happen again at Hattiesburg with the high temperatures and nasty humidity, Stoops said.
“We have to be able to make sure we have more depth, we have to play a lot of guys early in this game and rotate some guys in to have some in our tank to play in the second half,” Stoops said. “But I think emotionally players have to learn how to deal with that. That’s where playing on the road hopefully will help you.”
With new rules in place to keep head coaches from coming onto the field to confront officials about plays that they might disagree with, Stoops joked this week that he’s taking applications for his “get-back guy” on the field.
“I’ve got to have somebody hogtie me if I try to get on that field” to avoid the 15-yard penalty, Stoops said on his coaches’ show. “I’ll definitely be on the ground at some point this year. I’ll need to have some of those big, strong guys pick me up. … There’s no way they can allow me to go on that field. Might need to get one of those shock collars.”
• It’s been a difficult few months for UK center Bunchy Stallings, a McComb, Miss., native, who lost his mom to cancer this summer. But he’ll have a large support network in the stands at Southern Miss on Saturday. Stallings’ dad already has 50 tickets and is in the process of acquiring more for “family, friends, church members, people are just coming from everywhere,” the lineman said, smiling.
2017 UK football schedule
Home games in capital letters. Times are p.m.
Sept. 2: At Southern Mississippi, 4 (CBS SN)
Sept. 9: EASTERN KENTUCKY, Noon (SEC)
Sept. 16: At South Carolina, 7:30 (SEC)
Sept. 23: FLORIDA
Sept. 30: EASTERN MICHIGAN
Oct. 7: MISSOURI
Oct. 21: At Mississippi St.
Oct. 28: TENNESSEE
Nov. 4: OLE MISS
Nov. 11: At Vanderbilt
Nov. 18: At Georgia
Nov. 25: LOUISVILLE