Matt House doesn’t have much to say, but he says it well.
With the media, Kentucky’s new defensive coordinator is the master of the short sound bite. Everything is about fundamentals. Pad level. Leverage. Position on the football. Consistency. Over and over. Again and again.
That’s not to say that House has nothing to say. He will evaluate personnel, tell you who is playing well and who needs to improve. On Wednesday, for example, House said much-maligned nose tackle Matt Elam did some good things last Saturday at Southern Miss, especially on the goal line. During training camp, House said linebacker Jordan Jones, a pre-season All-SEC, could play better.
Now, heading into Saturday’s home opener against Eastern Kentucky, Kentucky is coming off one of its better defensive efforts of Mark Stoops’ tenure. The Cats limited Southern Miss to just 55 rushing yards on 38 carries in the 24-17 road win. That rushing total was the second-lowest allowed since Stoops’ arrival in 2013. The 1.45 yards per rush attempt was the lowest under Stoops.
Overall, Kentucky allowed 364 total yards, fewer yards than the Cats allowed to all but four 2016 opponents. If not for 309 yards passing -- three completions accounted for 119 of those yards -- that number would have been much lower. Cat defenders came up short on 50-50 balls.
“Going up and just becoming the receiver and taking the ball out of the air,” House said Wednesday when asked what his secondary needed to do to come out on the winning end of those balls.
Simple, but true. That appears to be a House axiom. He has experience at the position. He was defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh and Florida International before joining Stoops’ staff as outside linebackers coach and special teams coordinator. When D.J. Eliot departed for Colorado, Stoops promoted House to DC and switched him to inside linebackers. Ex-Eastern Kentucky head coach Dean Hood was hired to coach the outside backers and coordinate the special teams.
That wasn’t the only staff change. Jimmy Brumbaugh was UK’s defensive line coach since Stoops’ arrival on campus. He left in the off-season to be co-defensive coordinator at Maryland with another former UK assistant Andy Buh. D.J. Durkin, the Maryland head coach, is another Youngstown product and good friends with Stoops, who hired Derrick LeBlanc to replace Brumbaugh.
According to his new D-line pupils, LeBlanc isn’t a screamer. He’s not an in-your-face coach. But his players got into Southern Miss’ backfield in Hattiesburg, pushing the line of scrimmage into reverse, playing a key role in holding USM’s star back Ito Smith to just 36 yards rushing.
“You can be demanding without being loud,” House said Wednesday. “Derrick is a very demanding coach. He’s got his own way of going about it. He demands his guys do the right things fundamentally and do the right things within the scheme.”
Demanding, without being loud. Short, sweet, and true.
Based on last week’s performance and given the current roster, I wrote that this may be the defense Stoops has worked toward building since he left Florida State for Lexington. It certainly has the makings to be the best of his five defenses at Kentucky.
I received some push-back for that, and rightfully so. Southern Miss isn’t a Power 5 school. It’s just one game. And though Eastern Kentucky showed a dynamic passing offense last week, the Colonels are an FCS member. We’ll see what happens come Sept. 16 at South Carolina and the seven SEC games, plus Louisville, that come after that.
Still, there’s plenty of reason for optimism. Within reason, of course.
Said House: “We really just got to keep improving every time we hit the grass.”
Recent Kentucky defensive coordinators
Rich Brooks/Joker Phillips