UK Football

New coordinator Eliot making it easier for Kentucky defense to play harder

UK defensive coordinator D. J. Eliot addresses the media during UK Football media day at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky., Monday, August 5, 2013. Photo by Matt Goins
UK defensive coordinator D. J. Eliot addresses the media during UK Football media day at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky., Monday, August 5, 2013. Photo by Matt Goins Herald-Leader

D.J. Eliot has done his share of helmet slapping since taking over at Kentucky.

That's something the defensive coordinator has become known for starting with spring practices.

Installing a new defense is complicated, messy work.

Sometimes a few players need a good slap on the head.

"He's one of those coaches who run up behind you if you're doing the wrong thing and slaps you on the head to do the right thing," said junior defensive end Bud Dupree.

Then Dupree added with a smile: "He's a pretty good guy."

Eliot, who originally thought he wanted to be a dentist like his father, fell into coaching at Wyoming after his playing career ended with a shoulder injury.

A young secondary coach named Mark Stoops helped encourage the linebacker from Oklahoma to consider coaching.

Eliot has had his work cut out for him at Kentucky, where many players on the defense are on their third coordinator and their third scheme. Others are still so new that they need lots of finishing work.

But what the players are finding is a system that's much simpler being taught by a coach of few words who stresses simple things.

"He's like a silent, silent assassin," defensive lineman Tristian Johnson said. "It's like 'quiet, quiet, thinking, thinking' and then, 'Wham!' he's all up on you telling you to do your job. And you're like, 'Dang, is that the same guy as before?'"

The good news for the defense is the silent assassin has had fewer wham moments this fall. It helps that the defense has been easier for them to pick up.

There are still complicated parts, but not nearly as many as in the 3-4 defense under former coordinator Rick Minter, the players said.

"It's way easier to learn," Dupree said of the defense, which its coordinator calls "multiple" but is based on the 4-3 alignment. "You're just playing more freely through the downs and not much thinking during or before the play. You already know what you're going to do. You don't have to be out there with a lot of checks and stuff."

If the Kentucky defense, which managed to force just 13 turnovers all of last season and was last in the Southeastern Conference in third-down defense, wants to improve, it needs more big plays.

"His defense is an easier concept, which lets us make some plays in space and not think so much out there on the field," sophomore linebacker Khalid Henderson said.

"It allows players to play fast and make some plays on the ball. It's not as much the defensive coordinator trying to beat teams, it's players trying to beat teams."

Specifically, in pass defense, players are thinking less and reacting more.

"It makes it a lot simpler," said senior Avery Williamson, the quarterback of the defense as middle linebacker. "There aren't as many rules for pass coverage and things. That makes it a lot better for me."

This summer, Eliot said the thing he stresses more than anything else is being fundamentally sound.

"Not necessarily the perfect blitz against the perfect play, not necessarily the perfect coverage against the perfect pass route," he told the Herald-Leader in July. "I like to see defensive players who play with great fundamentals and can overcome bad things that might happen in a game."

Eliot has seen a dramatic improvement in fundamentals since last spring when the sound of slapping helmets was commonplace.

"We're a ton better from the spring," he said. "We're not where we need to be, but we're seeing the improvement."

One of his goals has been to keep the defense, even with its multiple wrinkles, easy for the defenders to pick up.

"If not, you're not a very good coach, you know what I mean," he said. "We've got to make sure everything we do is multiple and that we have enough bullets when we attack an offense, but not complicated for the players."

And even though they're midway through two-a-days and the long grind of camp, the defenders still seem excited about their new coach.

"He plays around a lot more than some old coaches we had, which makes it fun," linebacker Miles Simpson said of Eliot, who turned 37 on Wednesday. "It makes us want to be here. You can see it on a lot of people's faces. They want to be out here practicing. They want to get better, even more than last year."

Dupree would like to see the head slap become a thing of the past. He'd instead like for Eliot to start meeting him mid-air for congratulatory leaps.

"I tried to jump up with him at one time, but I don't think he's gotten to that level yet," Dupree said.

Wednesday practice notes

■ Stoops gave his coaches the morning off Wednesday so they could take their kids to school on their first days, tight ends coach Vince Marrow said.

■ Cornerback J.D. Harmon has returned to the team, UK spokesman Tony Neely said, but he will not participate in games this season.

■ Offensive coordinator Neal Brown was asked if there's a chance UK won't announce when it has a starting quarterback. "There's a good chance," he said. "I don't know. That's going to be up to Coach Stoops. But I figure, why tell Western (Kentucky)? Let them figure it out."

■ Injury report: defensive end Za'Darius Smith remains in a walking boot after rolling his ankle in practice last Thursday. ... Cornerback Cody Quinn also injured his ankle. ... Potential starting center Zach Myers was on crutches with a foot injury that Stoops called "nothing major."

■ Cornerback Nate Willis, who had been working on his eligibility for this season, is on campus and has started practicing with his teammates.

Season Opener

Aug. 31: vs. Western Kentucky at Nashville, 7 p.m.

Home opener

Sept. 7: vs. Miami (Ohio), noon

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