After watching abysmal defenses perform year after year, #BBN received a nice treat with the hire of the defensive expert Mark Stoops. Experts become experts when innovation produces results. Nuclear Rick Minter’s defense was innovative: it was a new take on how to let the other teams score as frequently as possible. All joking aside, Stoops’ flexible 4-3 defense is the perfect mixture for Kentucky football. Defense isn’t something #BBN is accustomed to, but this staff will ensure that the offense won’t have to win every game by themselves.
1. That Was Easy. For those that aren’t accustomed to playing on the defensive side of the ball on a week-to-week basis, I’m going to preface this by explaining how the process works. Unlike an offense where there are plays that are set in stone, the defense operates play by play, week by week. In common terms, the defense calls a play, then adjusts their pre-snap alignment based on how the offense lines up. For every offensive formation the opposing team runs, the players must know how to lineup for each different play they call. For example, if they have a dozen calls they will use against Louisville, and Louisville runs 25 different formations, that’s roughly 300 different alignments. While the math may be a little off, Minter’s defense required the players to think more about what they were doing, then simply letting them do what they do best, making plays. Someone close to the program told me recently, “it’s a lot easier to make a play if you don’t have to think about what you’re doing.”
Stoops’ defense allows the players much more freedom, with an exponentially smaller amount of pre-snap adjustments required to be in the right position before the ball is snapped. Avery Williamson led the SEC in tackles for the majority of last season, with the change only helping him become a better playmaker, “The greatest thing about it is that you can make a lot more plays behind the line of scrimmage, just by reacting and shooting the gaps.” The much simpler style also helps the guys who are changing positions. Miles Simpson had the most difficult role on the team last year, charged with the role of filling Winston’s ‘Monster’ position. Instead of having to lineup at a variety of spots, “the coaches are much more helpful, making it simpler and helping me read my keys better than I ever have before.”
2. Adjusting the defense for the personnel. Nothing bothered me more than the stubbornness of the previous coaching staff. Rather than taking the approach of the new coaching staff by adjusting the scheme to tailor to the players’ strengths, the old staff did things ‘their way’. The best asset the Cats had last year was their defensive line; by taking one of those players off the field in a 3-4, they were already taking one step in the negative direction. This staff knows that they will live and die by the DLine and Avery, allowing them to make as many plays as possible. At FSU, Coach Eliot’s leading tackler was on the DLine, “we coached our defensive linemen to make plays.” The case will be the same this year, moving one of the defense’s best playmakers to DLine. Bud Dupree likes the change, allowing him to remain a playmaker despite lining up in a three-point stance every down,“They free us up with Coach Eliot’s scheme. It puts us in a position to make plays rapidly.”
3. The head coach is in the room. Head football coaches often become less of a coach, and more of a manger, delegating the role of ‘man in charge’ to coordinators. Joker Phillips was by no means a defensive guy, with players forced to report to Coach Minter, a guy that MANY had problems with during his time here. Instead of taking orders from a man that wasn’t the most respected, they now have their head coach to answer to. The mere of presence of Coach Stoops during meetings and practice will exponentially increase the defense’s performance. They might try to slide by a few assistants, but nothing will get by the intimidating Stoops.
It’s pretty obvious that the defense will get better with the arrival of a defensive-minded head coach, but their approach is what sets them apart. While there is still a long time before the defense is completely installed, simplifying the defense by emphasizing the importance of playmakers will get them started on the right foot. I’ve personally experienced a loss because people couldn’t line-up properly in a complex defense; nothing is more frustrating than watching an offense succeed because guys can’t do their job easily. The 4-3 caters to positions that Kentucky is historically great at: the DLine and LB positions. Great LB play has held defenses together, and great defensive lines (like the Pryor, Jarmon, Jenkins, and Peters DLine) have taken the defense to some of their highest levels EVER. While the 4-3 will not make the defense great overnight, it provides the most stable foundation for a monumental transition in the defensive performance at the University of Kentucky.