Reports began to circulate on Wednesday that Kentucky defensive coordinator DJ Eliot had accepted a similar position at Colorado. The Herald-Leader’s Jen Smith later confirmed Eliot’s departure.
Much like with the conversation surrounding the exodus of WR Jeff Badet, the “what” Mark Stoops decides as a replacement is more important than the “who.”
Let me explain:
Will Mark Stoops convert his defense from a 3-4 to a 4-3 given the high number of elite prototypical 4-3 defensive ends in the Class of 2017?
The 3-4 defense is predicated on having a wardaddy or collection thereof at nose tackle. Naquez Pringle was the team’s most improved player and solidified the middle of the Wildcat defense. But, Pringle had very little help down the stretch. Collectively, the NT position lacks current firepower for insistence on manning an odd man front (3-4).
Lack of NT depth was highlighed in the Taxslayer Bowl when Georgia Tech’s B-Back (fullback) rushed for 169 yards straight up the gut. Given the number of defensive linemen coming off redshirt, incoming players, and returners; Kentucky will finally have the adequate up-front depth to man the 4-3. So, the question still remains; will Stoops hire a 4-3 minded defensive coordinator?
To play devil’s advocate, the development of sophomore outside linebackers Denzil Ware and Josh Allen may throw a wrench in the plans for a fulltime changeover to the 4-3. Allen and Ware combined for more QB sacks than did the final season of the Bud Dupree-Za’Darious Smith combination. Both are still emerging and are listed on early 2019 NFL projections. Simply, Kentucky is a better football team when both are on the field at the same time.
What Part II
Mark Stoops was in his element when calling the defense and is considered one of the nation’s top minds on that side of the football. Will he turn over his prized unit to a new face in the office and be completely comfortable with a hands-off approach?
Or, will he hire a DC that will assume similar duties as Eliot which was to organize game plans and personnel while Stoops had the final say-so from the sideline? If yes, will he internally hire? There is no wrong or right answer here.
Kentucky could compete for the SEC East title in 2017. The time for a program surge up the SEC’s pecking order is now. Finally, UK’s talent is on par with its East peers. Stoops’ comfort/trust level in the new DC will be paramount and prominently factor in the ultimate decision.
Names will surface. Social media will be a launching pad for Good Idea Fairies from all walks of life. But, a viable replacement will not likely surface until after February 1st as Stoops will maintain focus on finalizing what could potentially be the program’s best recruiting class in recent memory.
UK’s leader has demonstrated patience when selecting a coordinator, as seen in the Eddie Gran situation. Additionally, the pool of candidates worth their salt will be putting the finishing touches on their recruiting classes and wouldn’t be available for interviews for quite some time. Coordinator searches are critical. This may take a while.
What does all this mean?
Mark Stoops and DJ Eliot had history. They appeared to be close with mutual trust. This move could not have been comfortable for either but remember; it’s not personal, it’s personnel (or in this case, a coach).
The fact of the matter is that Eliot’s defenses gave up 29.9 points per game over the course of three years. In 2016, the Cats allowed 43 points per game when he was in complete charge which led to a change in responsibilities. Stoops assumed command and it surrendered 27 a game. Over two touchdowns worth of points per game can be persuasive.
Whether or not the head coach decided to make a permanent change or Eliot openly sought another job is irrelevant. What does matter is that the Kentucky defense could take on a new personality in 2017? Or, will it?