By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
With the spring football game on Friday night it is time to see what improvements have been made from the 2017 Music City Bowl team that finished 7-5 in the regular season and lost to Northwestern 24-23 in the bowl game.
In that game most fans had hoped to see some defensive improvement during the bowl season extra practices but unfortunately the defense played true to form and gave up 333 yards on the ground and an additional 109 through the air to give Northwestern the victory. Since Mark Stoops prides himself on being a defense-first coach, that did not sit to well with the fifth year head coach.
When Stoops came to Kentucky as the new head coach most people in the business knew him as a hard-nosed, detail oriented defensive coach that liked to win games the old fashioned way — with in-your-face defense that shut down the run game and allowed his lock-down cornerbacks and safeties along with the linebackers to make plays on teams caught in a “third and long” situation.
The goal was to not give up the big play and force the opposing offense to move the ball down the field by consistently making play after play in the short game without making any mistakes.
That philosophy worked well at his previous stops at Arizona with his brother Mike as the head coach and at Florida State where he was the defensive coordinator under Jimbo Fisher for three years. At both places he turned a previously porous defensive team into a highly ranked unit after implementing his defensive philosophies.
In fact, Florida State went from the 108th ranked defense in the NCAA when Stoops took over to the 2nd ranked defense three years later. At Arizona he performed a similar miracle. Arizona’s defense was ranked 109th when Stoops took over and finished in the Top 25 his last two years there.
So far it hasn’t worked that way at the University of Kentucky. When former head coach Joker Phillips left the University of Kentucky at the end of the 2012 season his defense was ranked 41st in NCAA Division 1 Football. Lest you think that was a fluke his 2011 defense also finished ranked 41st in total defense.
Mark Stoops’ team last season ranked 87th in total defense. His 2016 team ranked a notch better at number 86. Not great numbers when you look at what was accomplished prior to Stoops arriving as the head coach.
To his credit he has taken the UK team to bowl games in both of those seasons – something Joker was not able to do in 2011 or 2012 – and he did finish third in the SEC East last season and defeated arch rival Tennessee at home.
But in looking back at the schedule for 2017 his defense gave up 20 points or more in 10 of 13 games and finished at 7-6.
Stoops calling card has always been how his teams perform defensively. It was at Arizona where his defenses ranked in the Top 25 and it was at Florida State where his defenses annually ranked in the Top 5. Knowing that makes a person wonder what has happened at Kentucky where the defense has slipped from 41st in the country prior to Stoops arrival to its last season final standing of 87th.
If Stoops is ever going to make a push into the upper echelon of teams in the SEC he will have to field a defense that can consistently rank at least 20th or better in the nation. This should be the year the Kentucky team makes strides in that direction.
With experience and talent in the secondary, more and better quality depth in the defensive line and a talented but inexperienced linebacking crew, Kentucky should be in position to take a few steps forward and at least get back to the overall defensive ranking the team achieved under Phillips.
If not — with an unproven quarterback and inexperienced wide receivers in the offense — it could turn out to be a long season for the Wildcat’s Football Team.