Kentucky’s football season got off to a dismal start, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. With DJ Eliot calling the shots on defense the first three games of the season, UK gave up a combined 131 points and 1,584 yards of offense to a decent mid-major program (Southern Miss), a mediocre offensive SEC football team (Florida), and a bad mid-major program (New Mexico State). The Cats started 1-2, with all three teams scoring in excess of 40 points and racking up at least 500 yards. The Cats were well on their way to recording one of the worst statistical defensive seasons in college football history.
So with his team in disarray and his career on the line, Mark Stoops made the move to take over defensive play calling. The results have been nothing short of amazing. Over the last three games, the same UK defense has given up a total of 57 points on 1,038 yards, and the Cats have gone 2-1. No opponent scored 40 points or recorded 500 yards of offense. In fact, only Alabama has scored more than 13 points or gained even 300 yards of offense, and UK held them to a season low of 34 points. Sure, the other two games were against SEC also-rans South Carolina and Vanderbilt, neither of which is a particularly strong offensive team. But that doesn’t mean the turnaround is fool’s gold; SC and Vandy are better than New Mexico State, and are on par with Southern Miss. The change in play-callers was the only significant change, so I’m not going to overthink this: Stoops taking over the play calling turned this defense around.
I was not surprised when he made this change. Stoops came to Lexington with a legitimate resume as a successful defensive coordinator, so who better to run our defensive unit? My only question is, what took so long? The defense has struggled in most every game since Mark Stoops arrived at UK, so why didn’t he make the move sooner? Hindsight is 20/20 and playing the coulda-shoulda-woulda game doesn’t do anyone any favors, but what if Stoops had ran his defense from day one in Lexington? His first team was going to struggle no matter what, but given the turnaround I’ve seen this year in just three games you’ll struggle to convince me that a Stoops-led UK defense wouldn’t have won at least one more game each of the last two years. Year four of the Stoops era would look completely different if we were coming off of back to back bowl appearances in year two and three. Instead of fighting for bowl eligibility, we would be a team on the rise in a weakened SEC East.
This post is not meant to be a dig at defensive coordinator DJ Eliot. Eliot would still be here as DC, since HC’s who call their own plays still employ coordinators to do essentially what Eliot is now doing —game plan, coach in practice, and sit in the press box and look for things that can’t be seen from the field. This is clearly a role that he is better suited for at this point in his career, and by all accounts he is performing well in these areas. So please don’t read this as a slam on DJ Eliot, or on Stoops for that matter. It is more of a question for all college football coaches, particularly the newly hired ones — if you are qualified to do so, why not call your own plays?
NFL coaches do it all the time. In fact, half of the league’s 32 head coaches call either offensive or defensive plays for their respective teams. Even more telling, of the seven new NFL head coaches hired for the 2016 season, six call their own shots. NFL HC’s do this for one reason: they know that they will likely get only one chance to prove their worth as a HC, and do not want to leave their careers in someone else’s hands. This seems very logical to me. If you’re only going to get one shot to show what you’ve got, why would you let someone else potentially decide your fate?
New coaches in the NFL and in big time college football have some things in common. Both are hired first and foremost to make money for their employers, and they do so by winning early and often. New head coaches in both leagues are often (not always) proven experts in the art of play calling on one side of the ball. Also, new HC’s in either scenario typically only get one or two chances before they are forever relegated to assistant status. I mean, if Stoops doesn’t get the job done at UK do you really think he’s going to get another major conference offer in the next decade? With that kind of pressure, head coaches at either level must do everything they can to succeed as quickly as possible. That’s why I believe more college coaches should follow the lead of their NFL brethren and, if they have the acumen to do so, call their own plays from day one. At least then they’ll know that they maximized their strengths as an individual and did everything within their own power to succeed. So new/struggling college football coaches, follow Mark Stoops’ example: man up and call your own plays. BBN, agree or disagree??