After the eternal and lifeless summer months, college football is finally back. For the Kentucky faithful, the eternal wait was even longer as what we saw last year was a very loose definition of the word football. Fast forward to the present and we can be excited about future prospects once again. Not only have Mark Stoops and his staff rejuvenated the fanbase so starving for a winner, but they also have Kentucky’s future recruiting class within the top-10 nationally, a feat many thought to be impossible. While the off-season accomplishments are great in their own right, we can finally turn our attention to the events that count in the grand scheme of things; the games. As it stands, Kentucky is 0-0, but is set to take on one of the nation’s most brilliant offensive minds in Bobby Petrino. The Wildcat defense against Western’s offense has been a hot topic for discussion in the off-season and will undoubtedly be an important factor in the game, but most seem to forget that Western will be forced to defend Neal Brown’s offense as well. Newly hired defensive coordinator for Western, Nick Holt, has been a defensive coordinator at numerous schools and was even the head coach at Idaho for two seasons. However, around these parts, many haven’t even heard of him and have no idea what his schemes entail. Luckily, I was able to find old game film and statistics, giving me the opportunity to record, break down, and analyze what his defenses have done in the past.
First, according to his Wikipedia page, Holt was also the defensive coordinator/defensive line coach at USC during the 2006-08 span. However, there’s dispute about who actually called the defensive plays. Was it current Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, or was it Holt? People often point at the talent at USC and the current career trajectories as evidence for Carroll calling the plays. In the interest of simplicity, I chose to include his stats as head coach or defensive coordinator only. If you’re interested, the USC stats can be found here.
Let’s not sugarcoat it here, as you can see from the above numbers, Holt’s defenses have been very poor throughout the years. Only twice in his career have his squads been ranked within the top-100 nationally in scoring defense. However, in the three other seasons as a coordinator or head coach, his teams gave up, on average, five touchdowns per game. While his past isn’t much to brag about, he does inherit some solid pieces from Willie Taggart which will make the first year transition easier. Leading tackler from one season ago, Andrew Jackson, returns to the team in addition to four starters from the secondary. However, Western doesn’t return a single starter from the defensive line. While some of the individual pieces are very good, as a unit last season, Western was ranked 50th nationally in scoring defense allowing 25.5 points per game. However, once total drives and strength of schedule were considered, I had them ranked 72nd in defensive efficiency in my ratings.
Nick Holt’s defense is a base 4-3, but differs from some because of the frequent Nickel and Dime concepts. Of course, the Pac-12 is known as an offensive league with many different spread looks, so this is to be expected. Nickel and Dime concepts may be foreign to some, but fret not, they’re pretty simple to understand. Nickel defense (or a 4-2-5) is a formation that utilizes five defensive backs rather than the typical four. Typically, a linebacker is the player replaced. The Nickel will be the primary set that Holt uses to defend against Neal Brown’s Kentucky offense. Dime defense is very similar to Nickel, but with one key difference, the addition of another defensive back. Typically, there will only be one linebacker in this formation, but the four down linemen usually remain. Both Nickel and Dime are used to combat the spread offense and obvious passing situations where more receivers are generally present. While the Nickel will be the primary set, Dime will also be used against Kentucky. Now that we see what will be used against Kentucky, how will we attack it?
Luckily for Neal Brown, he already has the template on how to attack Holt’s defense, and it was given to him during the 2011 Alamo Bowl by a former conference rival, Baylor. Art Briles, head coach of Baylor, is very similar to Neal Brown in that he runs the Air Raid offense as well. While there are subtle difference like spacing and play calling preferences, the two use very similar concepts. For the sake of this article, we’ll be examining the zone read and screen passes, two types of plays that torched Washington for 67 points in 2011.
In the above play, we see Washington with three down linemen and a linebacker shifted to the defensive line. As you can see, the middle of the field is wide open because of Baylor’s four receiver look. Of course, having Robert Griffin III’s deep ball threat and deadly speed will do that as well. However, once the ball is snapped, Baylor immediately capitalizes on their 5-on-3 advantage on the line and opens a massive hole. The shifted linebacker is the player being zone read by Griffin and he recognizes his over-commitment, thus he hands it off to the running back who runs for the touchdown. Since the field was so spread due to the formation, Washington had no chance to recover. This zone read concept is something we will be seeing on Saturday from Neal Brown’s offense, which leads me to believe that Jalen Whitlow will be primarily featured at quarterback. Given the spread field and Whitlow’s running ability, I think Kentucky can truly do some damage to Western with this play.
There were so many examples of screens in this game I had a very difficult time choosing an example.
Screen passes, particularly bubble screens, are a sore topic of discussion among Kentucky fans because of Randy Sanders’ shenanigans, but brace yourself, we’ll be seeing some on Saturday. Screens are a part of every single offense that features the forward pass, but in the video above, they’re so effective because of the zone read and potential deep threat. As you can see, there is very soft coverage on the two receivers in the top of the frame. Because of this, the slot receiver (who is uncovered), runs a very short curl route. The wide receiver proceeds to run downfield and blocks the man assigned to cover him, setting up for a huge gain after the screen is thrown because the zone read drew the linebacker away from the slot receiver. Again, the necessity to have a serious rushing threat from the quarterback position while running the zone read leads me to believe that Jalen Whitlow will be the guy who is primarily featured come Saturday.
While many are focusing on Petrino’s offense against Kentucky’s defense, and for good reason, don’t forget that Western will be forced to play defense as well. Some say that we should be skeptical of Kentucky’s offense because of the personnel and first game learning curve, but don’t forget that Western hired a man to run their defense that has done nothing but under-perform in his time as a coordinator and coach. Unfortunately for Nick Holt, he has faced the Air Raid with much better personnel than he currently has and was run off the field with two simple plays. Though he won’t be facing the same talent he faced in 2011 against Baylor, he will be facing a spread team with superior talent than he currently possesses.