The most intriguing questions during Kentucky football’s recently completed spring drills involved the offensive side of the ball. Tops on the list was the starting quarterback battle. The need to find young wide receivers and develop depth at running back was important. And it all starts with the offensive line.
All of that made more than enough sense considering Kentucky slipped to 103rd out of 119 FBS teams in total offense a season ago. Now tack on the graduation of the gritty quarterback Stephen Johnson, with his top-drawer leadership skills.
“I know we’ve got big shoes to fill,” Terry Wilson, the junior college transfer in contention to fill those shoes, said Friday night after the team’s spring drills.
My contention, however, is that none of that matters unless Kentucky’s defensive side of the football takes a significant step forward in 2018.
“I definitely feel stronger about the defense, there’s no doubt,” said head coach Mark Stoops after Friday’s Blue-White Spring Game. “I think we’ll be an improved unit.”
Defense is where Stoops built his reputation, of course. He was the secondary coach at Miami, defensive coordinator at first Arizona and then Florida State. His final two seasons at FSU, Stoops’ unit ranked in the top five nationally in yards allowed per game — fourth in 2011; second in 2012.
He has yet to build that type of defense at Kentucky, however. Since his arrival in 2013, his teams have ranked 92nd, 77th, 59th, 85th and 92nd in total defense. Bottom line, in his five seasons, Stoops has yet to field a top-50 defense statistically.
How important is that stat? Last season, the top-10 teams in total defense posted a combined record of 108-26 for an 80.6 winning percentage. Included in that group was national champion Alabama (No. 1), national runner-up Georgia (No. 6), national semifinalist Clemson (No. 4), Big 10 champion Ohio State (No. 9) and a 13-1 Wisconsin (No. 2).
One particular aspect that has hurt Kentucky is the inability to stop the run. Again, starting in 2013, UK has ranked 94th, 91st, 97th, 110th and 79th in average rushing yards allowed per game.
After starting last season as an improved defense against the run, the Cats fell apart the last two-thirds of the schedule. Missouri rushed for 213 yards, Mississippi State for 272, Tennessee for 203. The final three games of the year, UK gave up 381 rushing yards to Georgia, 346 to Louisville and 333 to Northwestern.
Admittedly, there were some pretty fair runners in that final trio. Georgia boasted Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Louisville had a quarterback by the name of Lamar Jackson. Northwestern’s star was running back Justin Jackson, the school’s all-time leading rusher. But Kentucky lost all three of those games, turning a 7-3 record into a 7-6 finish.
Personnel-wise, there is reason to believe next year will be better than the last. Nine starters return on defense. Eight of those starters are seniors in T.J. Carter, Josh Allen, Denzil Ware, Jordan Jones, Derrick Baity, Lonnie Johnson, Mike Edwards and Darius West.
It was hard to tell much on Friday night. Aside from not allowing hits on the quarterback, the spring game rules favor the offense. And Stoops played his stalwarts sparingly, choosing to take longer looks at his back-ups who could play key roles.
Truth be told, that could be the whole key to the defense in 2018. We’re talking about players including sophomore defensive lineman Josh Paschal, sophomore linebacker Boogie Watson, junior linebacker Kash Daniel, redshirt freshman safety Davonte Robinson and junior corner Jordan Griffin.
“I think we have to have all hands on deck,” Stoops said Friday. “We have to be deeper than we’ve been. But no, we’ll be an improved unit. There’s no doubt that we will be better, and we’ll continue to challenge them.”
When it comes to defense, in 2018 Kentucky has to be better.