As faithful followers of Kentucky football know, Mark Stoops was a defensive coordinator before assuming the head coach’s office in Lexington. He made his name on that side of the football, first under brother Mike at Arizona and then, even more so, for Jimbo Fisher at Florida State.
At Kentucky, however, Stoops’ defenses have struggled. In 2013, his first edition ranked 92nd nationally in total yards allowed per game. Not good. His second improved to 77th. His third jumped to 59th. Then last year’s unit got off to a horrendous start, steamrolled for a combined 131 points the first three games.
“Kentucky might have the worst defense in the history of football,” none other than Lee Corso proclaimed on “College GameDay” the week after the Cats allowed 42 points to New Mexico State. “Their fans can’t wait for basketball.”
The Cats wound up 85th nationally in yards allowed per game. Then Saturday, Kentucky’s defense delivered possibly its best performance in Stoops’ five-year tenure.
It held star Southern Miss running back Ito Smith to just 36 rushing yards — the Golden Eagles netted just 55 rushing yards in all — and created three turnovers, including a fumble recovery returned 20 yards for a touchdown for what was ultimately the deciding margin in a 24-17 victory.
Overall, the host Golden Eagles failed to score on 11 of their 14 possessions to give UK’s defense a stop rate of 78.6 percent. According to Max Olson of the All-American, the average stop rate among FBS schools last season was 65 percent. The best stop rate belonged to Alabama at 82 percent.
To be sure, Kentucky’s sample size is small. We’re basing judgments on a first impression. Given that one game, however, it’s reasonable to ask if this is the defense Stoops was building toward all along?
Evidence suggests the answer is yes. Stoops’ best defensive players now have experience. We’re talking SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week Denzil Ware, a junior end/outside linebacker who took one of his two fumble recoveries to the house on Saturday. We’re talking fellow junior end Josh Allen. We’re talking junior inside linebacker Jordan Jones, a preseason All-SEC team selection.
The UK secondary boasts safety/nickel back Mike Edwards, maybe the best all-around player on the team. Cornerbacks Derrick Baity and Chris Westry are juniors with considerable starting experience. Safety Darius West, finally healthy, made an impact Saturday. And there is good depth with senior Kendall Randolph, junior-college transfer Lonnie Johnson (four tackles Saturday), sophomore Jordan Griffin and redshirt freshman Davonte Robinson.
Saturday’s most pleasant surprise was the defensive line. A deep concern entering the campaign, the trio was credited with the push inside that allowed Ware and Allen to harass the Southern Miss quarterback from the edge. Much-maligned nose tackle Matt Elam showed improvement. Interior linemen Adrian Middleton and T.J. Carter appeared to play well.
“Really well. Really well,” said Stoops on Monday when asked how the duo performed in their college debuts. “I really felt like Quinton and Josh on the front really played some good football. Very encouraging to see.”
It is way, way too early, of course. One game down, 11 regular-season more to go. Southern Mississippi is a so-called “Group of Five” school that started one inexperienced quarterback and played another the entire second half. Opposing offenses on the schedule are only going to grow more skilled.
Still, after it was the Kentucky defense that carried the Cats to their season-opening win, there is reason for encouragement. Given the depth chart, there is reason to think Saturday wasn’t a fluke. This year’s defense might not be yet what Mark Stoops has in mind, but you get the feeling he’s getting closer.
Kentucky defense national rankings