Mark Story

Is this the year UK's Stoops finally gets a quality defense on the field?

Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops, center, has nine defensive starters back from UK's 2017 Music City Bowl team.
Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops, center, has nine defensive starters back from UK's 2017 Music City Bowl team. aslitz@herald-leader.com

For a coach who inherited a 2-10 dumpster fire and has led Kentucky football to back-to-back bowl games, Mark Stoops does not seem to have deposited an abundance of good will in the First Bank of the Big Blue Nation.

Part of the reason, I think, is that even as Stoops has produced a steady build in the fortunes of the UK program, he has not upheld the rationale for his hiring in one important area.

Josh Allen
Kentucky hired assistant coach Brad White from the NFL to help outside linebackers like Josh Allen (41) take their play to the next level, UK’s Mark Stoops said. Mark Mahan

Based on the good work Stoops did as a coordinator in his three seasons (2010-12) running Florida State's defense as well as the brand identity his last name carries for quality defensive football, the expectation when Stoops was hired by Mitch Barnhart before the 2013 season was that he would put the "D" back in Wildcats.

Instead, even as the UK record improved from 2-10 (2013) through two 5-7 years to 7-6 the past two seasons, the Kentucky defense has actually gotten worse by some important metrics.

During Joker Phillips' ill-fated three-year tenure (2010-12) as Kentucky head coach, the worst UK defense (2012) surrendered an average of 391 total yards a game.

In Stoops' first five seasons, the best UK defense (2015) surrendered an average of 394.2 yards a game.

Under Phillips, Kentucky defenses gave up more than 400 yards in 45.9 percent (17 of 37) of their games.

Under Stoops, Kentucky defenses have given up more than 400 yards in 59 percent (36 of 61) of their games.

phillipsuktenn
By several metrics, Kentucky defenses were better during the ill-fated, three-year head coaching tenure of Joker Phillips, middle, than they have been in the five years since UK hired ex-Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops as its head coach. Lexington Herald-Leader

Under Phillips, UK allowed more than 40 points in 18.9 percent of its games (seven of 37).

Under Stoops, UK has allowed more than 40 points in 25.8 percent of its games (16 of 62).

If you are from the old school that believes the bedrock of defensive football is the ability to stop the run, Kentucky's 2017 football season ended in an acutely distressing manner.

In dropping its final three games of last season, Kentucky allowed more than 300 yards on the ground to Georgia (381), Louisville (346) and Northwestern (333).

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops on his team’s 44-17 loss to Louisville.

It is a self-evident truth that for Stoops to get Kentucky above the seven-win ceiling that has defined the regular seasons of UK football since 1984, the Wildcats have to get better on defense.

For three prime reasons, 2018 should be — certainly needs to be — the season when that happens.

1.) Even with the unexpected loss of senior-to-be defensive end Denzil Ware to transfer, Kentucky has nine defensive starters back.

That level of experience and physical maturity alone should yield improved play.

2.) In the coming season, UK will have a potential First Team All-SEC selection at each level of its defense.

Outside linebacker/rush end Josh Allen is being touted as a possible first-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Allen must show as a senior that he can sustain productive play throughout a season. Last year, he had at least one quarterback sack in each of Kentucky's first six games. Over the season's final seven contests, however, Allen was credited with only half a sack.

Jordan Jones
In his senior season, Kentucky linebacker Jordan Jones will seek to regain the form he showed as a sophomore in 2016 when he was third in the SEC with 109 tackles (8.4 a game). Michael Reaves

Senior weakside linebacker Jordan Jones is coming off an injury-plagued junior year that included an unusually sour ending. In UK's regular-season finale against archrival Louisville, Jones lost his composure and hurt the Cats with multiple personal fouls.

If Jones can successfully return from off-season shoulder surgery and keep his emotions on an even keel, he showed as a sophomore when he made 109 tackles he can be one of the most productive linebackers in the SEC.

In the secondary, Mike Edwards is a game-changing safety like UK has rarely had before. Last year as a redshirt junior, Edwards had four interceptions, seven pass breakups and 3.5 tackles for loss.

Mike Edwards
Kentucky safety Mike Edwards, intercepting a Lamar Jackson pass in UK's 2016 upset of Louisville, has a chance to be First Team All-SEC in 2018. Jonathan Palmer

3.) Over the off-season, Stoops made coaching staff changes that should benefit the UK defense.

The Kentucky head man used the NCAA's new 10th assistant coaching position on outside linebackers coach Brad White. A former Indianapolis Colts aide, White brings NFL-level expertise that should be a boon to Allen and UK's other OLBs.

Brad Smith, new University of Kentucky outside linebackers coach, talks to press within Joe Craft Football Training Facility about his fast experience of being hired by head coach Mark Stoops.

The hire of White allowed Stoops to move assistant Dean Hood, the former Eastern Kentucky head man, to the secondary.

Hood joins with returning defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale to give Kentucky two full-time assistants working to get more from a veteran secondary that did not play to its perceived potential in 2017.

Bottom line: UK should be in position in 2018 to at last produce the improved defense that Wildcats fans were expecting when Mark Stoops was hired six years ago.

If that doesn't happen this year, it will be time to wonder if it ever will.

Mark Story: 859-231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory

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