UK Football

If history holds, Stoops' defense ready for takeoff

Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot can see that his players are better grasping the system he and head coach Mark Stoops introduced last year. "The second year ... you see improvement," he said.
Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot can see that his players are better grasping the system he and head coach Mark Stoops introduced last year. "The second year ... you see improvement," he said. Lexington Herald-Leader

Mark Stoops rarely says the word "recruit" without following it with the word "develop."

"Recruit and develop" is a mantra on his speaking circuit throughout the year.

After back-to-back unheard of recruiting successes at Kentucky, there's still the development part.

"We've proven that we can recruit at a high level, we'll continue to recruit at a high level, now you need to see the fruits of our labor from the development side," the head coach said recently.

The development side will be crucial if Kentucky wants to find its way out of the Southeastern Conference basement.

As a defensive coordinator at two previous stops, Stoops was able to make big leaps in development by his second full year in charge.

Take Florida State.

Before Stoops arrived there, the Seminoles were 108th nationally in total defense. By his second season, they were fourth in the nation.

They went from 94th in scoring defense to fourth, 108th in rushing defense to second, allowing just 82.7 yards a game, giving up nearly 50 fewer yards a game.

The season before Stoops took over at Florida State, the defense was 77th in pass defense and improved to 20th.

Defenses that Stoops coordinated at Arizona and Florida State improved dramatically in his first season, but that trend changed at Kentucky, where the Cats finished worse nationally in total defense, scoring defense, rush defense and pass defense than the season before.

So does he think the second-year upswing can happen at Kentucky?

"I do," the head coach answered matter-of-factly on Media Day last week.

"Just from the first day of practice and the first four days, I like where we're at defensively. We haven't arrived yet or anything like that, but I see drastic improvement, and a lot of it comes from confidence and communication and understanding what's going on."

Those so-called light-bulb moments take time. It often takes a full year (sometimes longer) in a new system with new coaches before progress is made.

But defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said Kentucky is getting closer to flipping the switch.

"Well, the first year you go in, and everything's new to them," he said. "Every time they see something, it's the first time they see it. And then the second year, you've got a chance to (say) 'Hey, I've been there. I've seen that. I know what I'm supposed to do.'

"So you see improvement."

Kentucky defensive end Bud Dupree mentioned the new moves he has learned individually under Stoops and his staff, specifically in the pass rush.

"I had to develop pass-rush moves fast," Dupree said in July. "I developed a lot of them quickly and used my speed to my advantage. Coach Stoops puts me in a lot of situations, a lot of schemes, to make sure I'm using my ability to my best."

But it's more than just fancy moves that have players getting on board by year two, said Kentucky's high-performance coach, Erik Korem.

"It wasn't a competitive environment when we got here," he told the Herald-Leader. "Stoops demands we execute at a certain level, and players are starting to understand you either get it done or there's a consequence for it."

Korem watched firsthand as Stoops molded Florida State into one of the top defenses in the country, helping in part to get them on track to win a national championship last season.

"There's a reason that he's been successful every place he's been," Korem said. "People believe in him. It takes time, but when you're consistent, people see you have a standard and an expectation."

'Very good scrimmage'

Stoops seemed more upbeat after the Cats' first full scrimmage Wednesday than he has been in his tenure at Kentucky.

"Very good scrimmage," he said, beaming.

UK's offense was running at a much faster tempo, which caused his defense some problems at times.

"That tempo creates problems, because you've got to have a great sense of urgency to get lined up and execute quickly and think faster," Stoops said of his defense. "We're much further along than we were all year last year, but that's the good thing; that's what I told the offense; that's what they can do when they go put that kind of pressure on you."

■ The head coach isn't ready to name a starting quarterback, but he did say that they're narrowing it down and that answers could come soon.

"We'll figure it out," he said. "We'll get it figured out here in the next week. We will."

Stoops said the strengths and weaknesses are starting to become apparent for each quarterback. And just when they think it's decided, something happens to change their collective minds.

"Let's put it this way: Every time you think you might be close to making a decision, maybe somebody has a real good practice or that guy doesn't do as well," Stoops said of the delay. "So like I said, we'll get it figured out."

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