What’s wrong with the Kentucky secondary?
It’s a question that Mark Stoops has been asked by fans in one way or another for more than a month on his weekly coach’s show.
The statistics are not good.
The Cats’ defense is allowing 279.4 passing yards per game, some 50 yards more than their worst season under Stoops in 2013.
The 64.3 percent of passes completed against the UK secondary this season is second only to that first season under the head coach.
Kentucky has given up eight touchdowns and recorded zero interceptions in its last four games. It permitted Ole Miss — and its stable of wide receivers — to connect on 75.6 percent of its passes and amass 382 yards and four scores.
But the numbers aren’t a completely fair assessment, Stoops said, noting that large chunks of yardage have come in late-game situations like the 86 yards in the final nine seconds against Tennessee.
“Sometimes you may be up,” the head coach said combating the statistical data. “Sometimes it’s junk yards at the end of the half. Sometimes it’s maybe you’re not giving up anything in the run game, so they’re only passing it. The object is to win games.”
So yes, Kentucky is 6-3 and already bowl eligible heading into Saturday’s game at Vanderbilt, but it also has to find a way to fix some problems defensively.
Among those problems is the need to make more competitive plays. Just a couple of weeks ago, Stoops pointed out that UK’s secondary hadn’t won any 50-50 balls against Mississippi State receivers.
“We’ve got to make those plays,” secondary coach Steve Clinkscale said Wednesday. “Some of those plays are just escaping us.”
The explosive plays — some of those long passes that they got — you can’t give up home runs and win in a very close game. That’s a fair criticism. Our players know that. We looked at those closely today and technique and scheme and everything that we’re doing and there’s certainly things we have to take accountability for and get better with coaching and with playing.
Mark Stoops, UK head coach
Like a ball in the end zone that backup defensive back Jordan Griffin got a hand on to bat down last week against the Rebels, but he couldn’t pull in the interception.
“He’s a half an inch from intercepting that and then we’re not talking about all this stuff,” Clinkscale said.
There’s also UK giving up the so-called “home run” passes:13 pass plays of 40 or more yards. Only three other teams in the country have given up more.
“The explosive plays — some of those long passes that they got — you can’t give up home runs and win in a very close game,” Stoops said this week. “That’s a fair criticism. Our players know that. We looked at those closely today and technique and scheme and everything that we’re doing and there’s certainly things we have to take accountability for and get better with coaching and with playing.”
Lonnie Johnson, who had the misfortune of being the cornerback on the final play versus Ole Miss where the wide receiver made a crazy, contested catch in the end zone to win it, said he’s already put that behind him.
There wasn’t much he could have or would have done differently, the junior-college transfer said.
On another play, a 58-yard touchdown pass that evened the score at 27 in the third quarter, he’s still kicking himself for that.
“I just overplayed it because I knew exactly what he was going to do, so me just being too aggressive and I got caught,” Johnson said. “You see that on film and you just correct yourself.”
Stoops mentioned that play, too.
“It’s his eyes go back to the quarterback for just a fraction of a second and it slows you down,” Stoops said of the misplay. “And those are just technique things that we’ve gotta continue to iron out.”
Other things Stoops has mentioned in the last couple of weeks that the group needs to get ironed out include: communicating the called play better, especially against high-tempo teams.
“There were certainly things everybody could have done better, starting with myself schematically and coverages we played and also in technique with the players as well,” Stoops said Wednesday. “We all share in that responsibility.”
Technique, poor tackling at times, scheme, defending the run-pass option and other things all have been dissected and addressed.
It’s a work in progress.
There’s been plenty on film from which to make corrections, Johnson said. That position group has been hard at work trying to make those.
“Every day we’re going to work to get better as DBs,” Johnson said. “Just harp on each other, for real. We’re not going to bring each other down. … I’m done with last week, I’m pretty much focused on next week.”
That’s the key with cornerbacks, especially: a short memory.
And these past few weeks, the ability to be hard of hearing helps, too.
“People can look at it like, ‘Aww, they’re a bad secondary,’ and things like that, but plays are going to be made,” junior Derrick Baity said.
Playing in the secondary is often a thankless task. There have been hundreds of well-defended throws that people aren’t discussing because of the missed ones, UK’s defenders said.
“You’ve got to think about it, you’re starting backwards from the start of the play, you’re starting backwards,” Baity said. “People don’t know how hard that is and it’s hard. Only elite athletes can do it. It’s hard to lose a play, but you’ve got to win some.”
The goal against Vanderbilt, whose quarterback, Kyle Shurmur, has thrown for 20 touchdowns to just three interceptions this season, is for Kentucky to start making some of those elusive plays.
The Cats haven’t lost confidence.
“I’ve been really positive this week and the players have been really positive,” Clinkscale said. “We don’t want to beat them into the ground, but we want to make them accountable.”
Kentucky at Vanderbilt
4 p.m. (SEC)