There were 28 players in the nation who had more interceptions last season than Kentucky's entire team.
One of them is Western Kentucky's Jonathan Dowling, who had three picks in one game against UK last season. With his performance in that game alone, he would have ended up as the Cats' interceptions leader for all of last season.
It was that kind of year for the UK defense, which struggled with injuries and youth at key positions and only forced opponents into 13 turnovers (eight forced fumbles and five picks).
In fact, in the past 30 seasons, 13 is the fewest number UK has managed to force and that's happened just three times, most recently in 2001, one of the years rocked by scandal, and also in 1994.
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Black cats and broken mirrors aside, 13 is an unacceptable number, the Kentucky coaches said.
Forcing turnovers has become a serious focal point in practice.
"We're going to stress it in practice, harp on it in practice," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot told the Herald-Leader in late July. "When there's an opportunity to create a turnover, make sure that it's addressed whether they did it or not. Then make sure it's praised if they did do it. That doesn't always mean you're going to get those opportunities in a game, but we're going to stress it in practice."
Something has to change.
Only seven teams in the nation had fewer interceptions than Kentucky last season and it was announced on Tuesday that UK's returning interceptions leader, J.D. Harmon (who had his team-best two in the Missouri game), will not return.
That leaves just two players on the roster that intercepted a pass last season and one of them is Ashely Lowery, whose game status is still up in the air pending legal issues.
It's not just about a change of possession, either. Kentucky wants to make sure it scores points when an opponent gives UK the chance.
The Cats haven't scored a touchdown off an interception since 2009. Every other Southeastern Conference school has scored at least one from a pick in the past three seasons.
There's a magic number UK would like to get to in forced turnovers a game, but there's no magical formula for getting those turnovers, Coach Mark Stoops said.
It's just about making miscues a focal point in practice every day.
"The bottom line is that you do have to emphasize it and you have to practice that, and so on," Stoops said. "We'll do all those things necessary."
The goal is to force two or more turnovers a game, he continued.
"That was our goal at Florida State, but we also had a goal of three-and-outs," he said. "If you have X amount of three-and-outs, it's equivalent to a turnover. But like I said, I've been on a defense where we got a whole bunch and sometimes not as many. We're certainly going to stress that and try to create turnovers, but sometimes they come and sometimes they don't."
The good news for UK's defense is that Stoops has some experience on emphasizing miscues. When he was defensive backs coach at Miami in 2001, the Hurricanes set a school record with 45 turnovers, 27 of them on picks.
A year later, his secondary led the nation in pass defense and pass efficiency defense.
When Stoops got to Florida State in 2010, he took the Seminoles' defense from 108th overall to 42nd in one season. By the time he left for UK, FSU had the second-best defense in the nation.
Its pass defense went from 77th in the nation the year before he arrived to sixth overall when he left.
And while Eliot and Stoops have said that the UK secondary has to get better fundamentally, they stressed that their past defensive success was as much about getting some pressure on the passer as it was forcing tangible mistakes.
In Stoops' three seasons at Florida State, they improved as an overall defense without forcing an eye-popping number of mistakes (66 forced turnovers, including 36 interceptions).
It's more about every player in the defense knowing his role.
"I think a lot of that has to do with the system and what you're doing to put them in a position to be successful," Stoops said Monday when asked about improving UK's secondary.
He's coached defensive backs at every stop since he began coaching in 1996. The focus in practice will be about getting all pieces of the defense to seize the chance to force a turnover when it is in front of him.
"We drill it, plain and simple," Eliot explained. "We drill them on how to create a turnover: How to tip a ball as a D-lineman, how to pick off a tip, how to emphasize catching the ball as a linebacker and a DB. How to strip a football from a running back, how to recover a fumble when it's on the ground."
Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.
|UNLUCKY OR NOT, 13 IS BAD|