UK Football

Defense was key to UK’s historic 2018. Can it be big again after losing 7 starters?

Photo slideshow: UK football Blue-White spring football game

Blue defeats White 64-10 in the UK Blue-White spring football game Friday at Kroger Field in Lexington.
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Blue defeats White 64-10 in the UK Blue-White spring football game Friday at Kroger Field in Lexington.

Kentucky in 2018 won 10 games and was a nationally-respected Southeastern Conference football team because it played like one.

That was especially true on defense: the Wildcats allowed 16.8 points per game, second in the SEC behind only Mississippi State and sixth across all of college football. National champion Clemson — the nation’s leader in the category — allowed just 3.7 fewer points and about 40 fewer yards than the Wildcats, who ranked 21st nationally in that stat (332.2).

Those numbers were anomalous in relation to Mark Stoops’ first five seasons as head coach. All of those teams ranked in the bottom half of the league in total defense and all but one ranked toward the bottom in points allowed (the 2017 unit gave up 28.2 per game, good for eighth). Last year was the only time this decade that UK gave up fewer points than its offense generated over the course of a season.

Seven starters and 10 total players from the 2018 defense are no longer in the program. Several will hear their names called during the NFL Draft; if the replacements can even come close to replicating their efforts, it’ll be an indicator that UK’s ready to remain a player in the SEC rather than an also-ran (or worse, irrelevant).

UK’s first-string “Blue” defense was stout against the second-string “White” offense during the spring game, limiting it to 10 points and 165 total yards without linebacker Kash Daniel, who sat out for rest. It’s foolish to draw grand conclusions based on a single, vanilla scrimmage, but there was evidence that some supporting actors from last season — Jordan Griffin, Chris Oats, Davonte Robinson — could be ready to step into starring roles and maintain the level of play seen in 2018.

Defensive coordinator Brad White, who took over for Matt House after he left for the Kansas City Chiefs, was pleased with how his No. 1s competed early but thought they grew complacent as the game went on.

“That’s one thing we can’t do,” White said. “Even when we’re rolling good, even when we’re humming, we’ve gotta make sure that we keep it going. You can never just roll the ball out on a play. Once they figure that out, that it’s a down in and down out for 60, 70, 80 plays, then we’re gonna be the defense that we want to be. But we did some good things. We got off the field on third down.”

The White team — comprised mostly of sophomores and freshmen looking to play their way into the rotation this fall — yielded 609 yards of offense (365 through the air) and 64 total points. Things obviously aren’t that dire, but UK must develop depth from those ranks or risk a steep drop-off.

Head coach Mark Stoops’ main concern with the second unit was its passion.

“I was not pleased with just the competitive nature of some of our players and that needs to change,” Stoops said. “I don’t care who you are, what team you are, what you’re doing, when you go out on that field you better have a competitive spirit about you and a competitive nature. And I didn’t see some guys competing at the level that we expect. …

“There’s no cheerleaders out there. When you’re working like we work and grind it through the spring and out there in practice they need to take it upon themselves to individually play the game the way it’s meant to be played. And if you can’t do it, then you can’t play at this level.”

White was most impressed with Robinson on Friday — “He had a solid spring the whole spring and then he stepped up in this game.” — but doesn’t think many more starting positions are locked up.

“When we step out on the field in August, we’re gonna have the best 11 guys, the 11 guys that can help us win,” White said. “Whether they’re at that position now or whether we have to re-evaluate some things, we’ll do that through summer, we’ll do that through fall. We’ll see when we bring in the freshmen, who elevates. But right now nothing’s settled.”

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