As Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops looked for a new linebackers coach this spring, he realized everything he needed to grow that spot was in the office down the hall.
“Coach Eliot’s not going to brag on himself, but I can,” Stoops said of defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot, who was moved from coaching inside linebackers to outside linebackers this offseason. New hire Matt House takes over the inside linebackers.
“When (Eliot) came with me from Florida State, he had a lot to do with the success we had at Florida State, and how our D-line played and outside backers and D-ends played had a lot to do with this guy,” Stoops told a crowd of Big Blue backers at the Galt House on Thursday as part of a kickoff luncheon.
“I know firsthand how he develops those guys. I looked around for the last couple years at outside linebacker and there was nobody I could hire in the country that had more experience and could do what we needed to do in our system than him.”
Stoops is hopeful Eliot can help improve a group of outside linebackers — including Denzil Ware, Kobie Walker, Josh Allen and transfer De’Niro Laster — that struggled to pressure quarterbacks last season.
Kentucky was last in the Southeastern Conference in sacks with 17, with only nine in league play. It was the Cats’ fewest since 2009.
UK’s 53 tackles for loss tied for last in the league and ranked 122nd nationally out of 128 teams. The Cats return just one player who recorded at least two tackles for loss.
“I feel really comfortable there,” Eliot said of taking over the new duties. “I’ve coached that position before with a lot of success. I do like coaching those guys. We’ve got a good group of guys.”
UK’s shift from a base 4-3 to a 3-4 defense has put even more responsibility on those outside linebackers. It’s a little bit different from what Eliot and Stoops were doing at Florida State, but there is some overlap.
“We’re probably more multiple here than we were at Florida State,” Eliot said. “We run more 3-4 schemes. We ran some at Florida State, but not as many as we do here. So it is different, the fact that there’s different techniques that you need to emphasize more often with our scheme than we had to at Florida State.”
He hopes he can help a relatively young group get up to speed quickly. With player graduation and the dismissal of standout Jason Hatcher, UK lost more than two-thirds of its sacks and tackles for loss.
Outside linebacker isn’t an easy position to master on the fly either, the coaches said.
“An outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense has to do just about everything,” Eliot explained to the crowd in the banquet hall. “He has to be able to rush the passer, has to be able to drop into coverage. He has to be able to take on the run. …
“He has to cover like a linebacker and he has to be an edge rusher, so it takes a plan and we’ve got a good one in place. We’ve had a great summer developing those guys.”
Adding House, a former defensive coordinator at Pitt and Florida International to the staff, will help, too.
“He brings an energy to our group that is really good,” Eliot said of House, who takes over as special teams coordinator as well.
“He’s done an excellent job of working with the players in the summer and being energetic during our workouts. He also is a guy that is very detailed and can help in a lot of ways in game-planning and practice preparation.”
‘Kids are following him now’
Giving Drew Barker the title of starting quarterback paid off this summer, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said before the alumni association event Thursday.
“It’s been really good that we named a quarterback,” Gran said of the redshirt sophomore. “He earned it after spring.”
Barker was the go-to player for practices this summer when coaches aren’t permitted to work with players. Barker became an important surrogate.
“He had information all summer long where he was out there running our practices,” Gran continued. “He had to do that and the kids looked to him for that leadership and he did that. They were able to continue where we left off in the spring with this offense.
“I think that’s the biggest thing that he is the leader and he’s the one that has to do what he has to do at that position.”
To the lunch crowd, Gran said something similar, but made it clear that Barker is going to have to work to keep that starting spot he earned after 15 spring practices.
“We have our guy right now,” Gran said. “There’s still going to be competition at that position, but I think what’s important going into the summer is we have our guy, our leader. Those kids are following him now.”
On the move
All of Kentucky’s coaches moved into the new, $45 million practice facility this week, except the head coach.
“All the coaches’ offices are done but mine,” Stoops lamented. “Mine’s last, which is fine, which is good, but they’re working on it now and I’m excited to get in there. I know the players are as well.”
While he’s waiting for his new digs to be completed, he’s been working in various places in the new training facility, mostly in the staff meeting room.
Players formally report Aug. 4, but they will get a couple of days to “rejuvenate” before the start of fall camp.
“They will work out of the new building next week,” Stoops said. “They're gonna wrap it up Friday, pack up their bags and try and get some work next week. ... They will still be in there doing some things but the strict summer program will end Friday.”
Upcoming UK dates
Aug. 4: Players report for start of practice
Aug. 5: Media Day
Aug. 6: Fan Day
Sept. 3: Season opener vs. Southern Mississippi