UK Football

UK football's defense spent bye week working on its ability to finish plays

UK linebacker Ryan Flannigan (33) wrapped up EKU's Ethan Thomas. Tackling is "something we're practicing right now," Flannigan said.
UK linebacker Ryan Flannigan (33) wrapped up EKU's Ethan Thomas. Tackling is "something we're practicing right now," Flannigan said. Herald-Leader

When asked about it, Ryan Flannigan just shakes his head.

"Oh, man, it's very frustrating," the senior linebacker said of the number of times Kentucky's defense has seemingly had a player down only to see him pop back up and get extra yards or make a big pass that continues a drive.

"It's hard to look at, especially when you watch it in front of the whole team," said Flannigan, who had a couple examples of his own from the Cats' overtime victory over Eastern Kentucky.

The bye week situated before a huge Thursday night game at Commonwealth Stadium against Auburn has offered extra time to see those mistakes over and over.

It's not just Flannigan, and it's not just against EKU.

Many times this season Kentucky defenders have been in position to make a play and have not been able to finish it.

Much of this bye week has been spent going over the fine details of finishing.

"The biggest thing now is putting the quarterback down when we've gotten the opportunities," defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh said.

On that dreaded film Flannigan was discussing, they see defenders running by the quarterback and not actually wrapping him up.

"You've got to break down when you get to the quarterback," Brumbaugh continued. "You can't just lay out and try to go knock him out. You've got to break down, go to the up-field shoulder and just get him down."

So UK has been harping on fundamentals, dragging out tackling dummies to illustrate points and having scout team players do spin moves until they're dizzy to try and simulate slippery quarterbacks.

The extra work isn't complicated, defensive lineman C.J. Johnson said.

"We're hitting," said Johnson, who leads UK in tackles for loss with 3.5 and is second in sacks with two. "We're practicing on hitting and holding on to him."

It's unclear which Auburn quarterback UK will see on Thursday night: the stable pocket passer Sean White, or the mobile Jeremy Johnson.

Coach Gus Malzahn declared the quarterback competition open.

"There's some different options in the quarterback run game with Jeremy as opposed to Sean, both very good players, so game plan-wise, quite honestly, (it) doesn't change a whole heck of a lot," UK Coach Mark Stoops said last week.

But it's not just this week the Cats have to plan for.

There are upcoming games against mobile quarterbacks that have burned Kentucky in the past, like Mississippi State's Dak Prescott and Tennessee's Josh Dobbs.

That just gets UK through October.

Even quarterbacks not known for their mobility — and a few elusive running backs — have managed to frustrate Kentucky defenders this season.

"It's something we've got to do a better job on, taking better angles, just knowing where the ball is, where the quarterback is," said Flannigan, who has been close but has yet to manage a sack or a tackle for loss since returning from a shoulder injury two games ago.

"Whoever has the ball, just being at the right place at the right time. That's something we're practicing right now."

Kentucky is at the bottom of the league in tackles for loss at 21 (4.2 a game). The Cats have managed 10 sacks this season, but the bright side of that is six of them have come against SEC foes.

"It's something we definitely have been harping on and trying to work on," senior linebacker Josh Forrest (team leader in sacks this season with 2.5) said of getting a quarterback down. "The first week it was more about keeping them in the pocket because of how the Florida quarterback did. Now, it's get them down in the pocket."

Many times the biggest issue is that the blitzer has a clean look at the quarterback, but the quarterback also has a clean look at the defender.

"When the pocket collapses and you get him on a pass rush, he doesn't necessarily see the rusher and it's easier to sack him," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said.

"When you come clean, like we have a lot this year where no one is blocking you, then the quarterback can see that. It's harder to get him down, so we're emphasizing that those guys come under control and get him down when no one blocks them."

Cats receiving votes

At 4-1 overall, Kentucky is in second place in the SEC East and receiving votes in both the Associated Press and the coaches' polls, but not enough to break into the Top 25 so far.

The Cats picked up 13 votes in the poll voted on by select coaches and four votes in the AP poll released on Sunday.

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