Is there a no fly zone in Lexington?
After touching on quarterbacks and offensive line, we decided to switch it up a bit by going to the other side of the football. After sputtering in the first five years of the Mark Stoops era, the defense finally took off in 2018 and they were able to remain a very formidable unit in 2019 following a major talent exodus. The main reason why has been the pass defense.
Over the last two seasons, Kentucky has twice finished top-15 in scoring defense and in the top-35 in SP+’s defensive efficiency rankings. To no one’s surprise, former defensive back and secondary guru Mark Stoops is getting excellent play when being required to guard the forward pass. Our eye test has proved that, but the numbers also back it up.
After seeing seven defenses in the Mark Stoops era with three different coordinators and four separate play-callers (Stoops dabbled in 2016 after the horrific start), it hasn’t taken long to realize what the head coach puts a major emphasis on. After turning Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith loose, UK saw a major dip in 2015 when they finished last in the SEC in sacks, but have bounced back by recording at least 30 sacks in the last three seasons. The last two we’ve seen Kentucky finish in the top-10 nationally in sack rate (percentage of dropbacks that end with sacks) and the pressure they are putting on the quarterback is driving the bus for the pass defense.
When you look at Kentucky’s overall defense, the best thing they do is stay off the field. This is by design with Kentucky’s offense the last two seasons doing a great job by eating clock and limiting possessions by running the football. In those 26 games, they’ve ranked in the top 25 of least amount of snaps played and that has led to less opportunities. When pass plays have come, UK has been very stingy when it comes to completion rate and giving up yards when the ball is caught.
Kentucky allowed 6.44 yards per throw in 2018 and that would finish in the top-30 nationally. The next season after losing its top six pieces from the season before, UK was able to drop that number to 6.18 which finished in the top-15 nationally. The Wildcats completion rate defense was middle of the pack nationally, but they simply did not allow explosive pass plays and did a great job limiting yards after catch. Exactly what you would expect when you hired Mark Stoops.
The one specific era where this group must improve is in the takeaway department. There’s no hiding from the fact that UK leans on its pass rush to create the majority of the havoc while using the secondary to keep everything in front. That hasn’t resulted in many picks and the interception rate shows that. However, the touchdown rate has been excellent and in 2019 UK finished tied for first nationally by allowing just nine touchdown passes. UK has been very sticky with coverage in the red zone and that is a good combo for a secondary that tries to keep everything underneath in normal situations.
Now heading into the future, UK is returning every player in their secondary in addition to getting Davonte Robinson and LSU transfer Kelvin Joseph into the rotation. Calvin Taylor Jr. gave UK its best inside pass rush since Corey Peters and that will be difficult to replace, but they are getting all of their edge rushers back and Boogie Watson seems poised for a monster season.
— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) April 6, 2020
Mark Stoops has made the secondary and pass rush the backbone of the defense and now we’re starting to see why. The proof is in the pudding.