There was an urgency to Mark Stoops’ voice last week on a radio show in Alabama.
“Defensively, we need to make a big jump as far as being more consistent,” the Kentucky head coach said on the “Three Man Front” show based out of Birmingham. “We’ve seen flashes and done some really good things at times, but across the board, I’d like to see the consistency there.”
Perhaps no position group has been more inconsistent for Stoops than the one he has helped coach most of his career: the secondary.
After finishing fifth in the Southeastern Conference in pass defense in 2015 and 2016, the Cats fell to No. 13 in the league last season despite returning nearly every starter.
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There are some 111 starts back this fall between Kentucky’s defensive backs, including 29 or more apiece for corners Chris Westry and Derrick Baity and safety Mike Edwards.
The Cats also have a deep bench that includes safety Darius West and cornerback Lonnie Johnson, who each started more than a handful of games last year.
But last season’s numbers didn’t scream experienced secondary.
The 3,271 passing yards allowed is tied for second most given up by a Kentucky defense dating back to 1946.
UK was the only SEC team to allow 3,000 or more yards to opponents last season, which included five games where foes passed for more than 300 yards.
(Eastern Michigan just missed the cut with 299 passing yards and two touchdowns in that game.)
“We need to improve in the secondary,” Stoops told the Herald-Leader last month. “Across the board, really. My expectations are the secondary will improve in certain areas, but a lot of that goes hand in hand with the defensive line.”
That is a group where Stoops also expects to see some significant improvement. The coach said as much on the same radio show a week ago.
Which should help the Kentucky secondary get back to where it was before.
The link between the defensive line and success of the defensive backs is a strong one.
When Stoops was the secondary coach at Miami (Fla.), the Hurricanes lost their top five players in the secondary, including three who were first-round NFL Draft picks.
Stoops was asked multiple times in 2002 how his group would recover from losing all that talent and he smiled knowingly.
“I’d say, ‘We’re going to get better,’” Stoops told the Herald-Leader. “And they thought I was just some young, cocky guy shooting off at the mouth.’
“Why were we going to be better? I knew the defensive line was dominant.”
(Stoops also points out that he was correct in his prediction. The Hurricanes had an NCAA record for pass defense that season with an all-new secondary.)
Quarterbacks a season ago clearly had too much time to pick apart the Cats. Opponents were able to complete 64.2 percent of their passes. Only 16 other teams nationally allowed foes to connect at a higher rate.
Previous Kentucky teams have allowed opponents to connect on better than 60 percent of their passes just five times in the past 70 years — and two of those have come in Stoops’ tenure.
Some added depth and versatility in the secondary should help, including players such as junior Jordan Griffin, sophomores Davonte Robinson of Henry Clay and Cedric Dort, as well as others such as redshirt freshmen Yusuf Corker, Michael Nesbitt and Tyrell Aijan.
Other newcomers, including Stanley Garner and junior college transfer Domonique Williams, all will try to pitch in as UK is set to face a gauntlet of returning quarterback talent in the SEC.
Many of the Cats’ opponents this fall have quarterbacks back, including stars such as Missouri’s Drew Lock (3,964 yards, 44 touchdowns with 13 interceptions) and Vanderbilt's Kyle Shurmur, who finished second in the league in passing behind Lock with 2,823 yards, 26 TDs and 10 picks.
South Carolina’s Jake Bentley (2,794 yards and 18 TDs with 12 interceptions), Georgia’s Jake Fromm and Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald all are back after finishing in the top 10 in passing in the league last year.
“I expect us to be better in all areas,” Stoops said of his defense, which returns all but two starters.
“Some of the criticism is warranted. It is,” he continued. “But know that I expect more. I expect our players to expect more. I want them to be hungry and driven and want to improve and now that you have some guys with some experience and some talent, you should be able to make a jump.”