It’s the final stop in our Advanced Stat Profile series and this time we’re taking a deeper dive into the head man of the Kentucky football program. Mark Stoops is entering season eight as a head coach, but before that he was a defensive coordinator for nine seasons at both Arizona and Florida State. It feels like a good time to look back at the work that got Stoops the Kentucky job and then view how he has built the Kentucky defense through some trials and tribulations.
With Blue-Chip Talent
After five seasons out in Tucson, Mark Stoops called the defenses for his brother Mike and under his guidance the Wildcats had an average SP+ defensive finish of 40.6 with a high of 31 in 2006 and a low of 53 in 2005. The Wildcats were consistently in the top-50 when it came to success rate (limiting offenses below 50% of yards needed on first down, 70% of yards on second down and 100% on third and fourth down) while doing a very good job in big play prevention. The work here earned him the opportunity to become Jimbo Fisher’s defensive coordinator at Florida State.
***First column lists the SP+ defensive efficiency finishes with their opponent adjusted points per game in parentheses. We’re pulling both raw and computer generated numbers to evaluate the work done by each unit.***
In three short years, Stoops did some terrific work with FSU in a traditional 4-3 scheme. After a foundation season in year one, the Seminoles took off in 2012 with consecutive top-five defenses SP+’s efficiency rankings with the top yards per play unit in 2012. The Seminoles would go on to win the national championship in the year immediately after Stoops left for Lexington, but it was clear he built and set the base for a defense that would be crowned the last BCS national champion.
Under his watch, the Seminoles were among one of the best pass rushing groups in college football with defensive end Brandon Jenkins finishing second in sacks in the ACC from 2010-11. Bjoern Werner stepped in the next season to lead the league with 13 sacks as the Seminoles could always pressure the passer.
The third down defense took major forward steps each season while FSU turned into one of the sport’s top down-to-down defenses in 2011 and 2012 when it comes to yards per play and in success rate. It’s no surprise that Mitch Barnhart was interested in bringing him to Lexington.
FSU finished in top-30 each year under Stoops when it came to tackles for loss, but never ranked in the top-25 in takeaways. They ran a very sound scheme that did their best to keep everything in front while allowing their pass rushers and other front seven playmakers to make plays near the line. For seven consecutive seasons, Stoops’ units ranked in the top-50 when it came to efficiency and when he got his hands on rosters loaded with blue-chip talent they produced elite results.
Head Coach Development
When Mark Stoops took the job at UK, one of his first hires was bringing D.J. Eliot with him as defensive coordinator. Expectations were very high at first when Eliot helped secure commitments from blue-chippers Za’Darius Smith and Jason Hatcher in the first recruiting cycle. However, it was a very slow start on the field.
Eliot would serve as the primary defensive play-caller for three full seasons and in the beginning of 2016 before Mark Stoops decided a change needed to be made during that resurgent run towards the TaxSlayer Bowl. The Wildcats had a defensive efficiency average of 73 and finished sub-85 in success rate each season in those first four years. UK was brutal on third down while they became stingy in the red zone after a very slow start in 2013 and 2014.
After calling the defense to end the 2016 season, Stoops decided to promote inside linebackers coach Matt House to the coordinator position after just one year on the staff. House was previously a defensive coordinator at FIU and Pittsburgh where he produced two top-60 defenses as the Panthers made the transition to the ACC under head coach Paul Chryst. In his first year, UK had some issues but they started to lay some ground work for the future.
After multiple years of plug-and-play junior college defensive lineman playing in the trenches, UK just decided to get young and tossed true freshman Quinton Bohanna in a nose in addition to T.J. Carter, Phil Hoskins and Calvin Taylor Jr. all getting reps. UK ranked in the triple-digits in yards per play and success rate, but the pass rush took a big step forward and the offense did a great job by eating clock and limiting the number of possessions. This gave UK a great chance for a big year when both Josh Allen and Mike Edwards announced they were returning to Lexington for their senior seasons.
The next season would give UK its best defense in at least a decade and would go down as one of the best units in program history. Josh Allen was the star of the show (88 tackles, 17 sacks, 5 forced fumbles) and would bring home three different national awards. UK took an unbelievable jump in scoring defense and sack rate while setting high watermarks for every single measure used to judge a defense. After the monster jump that many though could be a blip, UK responded very positively this past fall.
Brad White was promoted to replace Matt House while the entire secondary and best defensive player in college football were off to the NFL. Many thought UK’s defense was set to take a major step backwards. After the first three games that seemed possible, but the first-year defensive coordinator figured out a way to press all of the right buttons.
UK was eerily similar to the 2018 unit in a lot of ways and the only big difference was in preventing touchdowns in the red zone and being pretty good, but not great at recording sacks. After a long time building a foundation with many bumps in the road, Mark Stoops has figured out what works well for him at Kentucky and this has become a defensive driven program.
Growth, Adaptation, Talent
When Mark Stoops first arrived, he implemented the same 4-3 scheme he used at Arizona and Florida State while bringing along a coach who believed in many of the same principles. After just one season, however, Stoops realized that at Kentucky he needed to make some schematic changes. The Wildcats made the switch to the 3-4 after year one and knew it would be imperative to create a pass rush from the edge position.
With that came some more tough decisions. The Wildcats had a really hard time attracting high school defensive line talent and that turned into a revolving door of junior college players being used on the line. Therefore, UK went young and took their lumps in 2017 but that move is starting to pay off big time now. Stoops also had to make some tough calls on his staff and that meant getting rid of some guys he’s had a long track record with.
Down the road, it looks like all the moves have worked with Kentucky having consecutive strong seasons on the defensive side of the football and projecting to have a top-25 defense again in 2020. Under the head man’s watch, the defenses do their best to keep everything in front and try to eliminate the big play. Due to this strategy, teams can have some success on the ground but eventually you have to throw the football. When that happens, the pass rush needs to make you pay. The best Mark Stoops defenses have been able to do that.
Kentucky is always facing an uphill battle when it comes to the recruiting game. The Wildcats, at the very best, are going to be in the upper middle class when it comes to attracting high school talent in the SEC and this will always be a program that needs to develop three-stars to be successful. We are starting to see that happen in Lexington.
The Wildcats are slowly raising their recruiting ceiling and are finally in a good spot with their defensive line talent and depth. That has made a world of difference in this defense making a huge jump in the last two seasons. To this point, UK is in a scheme that wants to have a ton of beef on the line to slow the run game, but they are willing to give up yards on the ground in order to not open themselves up to big pass plays over the top. They are able to succeed in this strategy because they have become really good at rushing the passer while the secondary has been rock solid in coverage.
It’s taken some time, but Stoops has found a winning recipe for Kentucky. It has taken time with much needed growth and adaptation, but it has also taken talent. We all know about the players, but sometimes you’re only as good as your coaching staff. UK has joined some of the big boys when it comes to facilities and utilizing a big support staff, but the biggest sign of progress has been at defensive coordinator. Stoops has allowed both Matt House and Brad White the freedom to coach their guys in the structure of his defense and the results have been through the roof.
All of a sudden, Kentucky is a football program built on a rock solid defensive foundation. How the times have changed.