Midway through fall camp, the word from everyone around the football program is that the Cats will be improved. At this point, offensive improvement under Eddie Gran is a forgone conclusion. He has a talented roster featuring quality depth all over, particularly at the skill positions. The assistant coaches working under him on offense are upgrades over their predecessors, so we should see better developed players this season. Perhaps most importantly, Gran has a plan for what he wants to do with the football, a stark contrast to the nonsensical play-calling we were subjected to last season. I believe Gran’s unit will reflect the characteristics of their leader, operating with purpose and discipline. This should bring increased productivity – specifically better down-distance situations, sustained drives, and ultimately more points on the board. While scoring more points will undoubtedly make the team more fun to watch, it may not equate to more wins if the defense doesn’t also take a step forward in 2016.
Given his experience and expertise on that side of the ball, I think BBN had high hopes of becoming a defensive force when Mark Stoops was hired. That has simply not come close to happening. The defense has yet to really become a factor in his time at UK. Some would argue that Stoops should have brought in an experienced defensive coordinator – either when he was hired, or even before this season – but that’s a debate for a different post. DJ Eliot is our DC, so we need him to raise his group’s level of play this season. We may be able to win six games on offensive improvements alone, but if we want to become a team capable of pulling off some upsets the defense must also make significant improvements. I believe our best chance to progress on defense is to switch to a 4-3 base package.
I have never been a fan of the 3-4 alignment because UK hasn’t had the quality depth at linebacker necessary to play this defense effectively. But if the coaches are committed to the 3-4, then they should commit to it. I would disagree with that decision, but at least it would be a decision. Instead, the defensive coaches like to refer to our system as “multiple.” Multiple is a nice theory, like we can just magically morph into whatever defense the opposition struggles against. But that is just a theory — in reality, multiple means we aren’t really good at anything so we try a lot of different things and hope something works. Multiple seems like an empty buzzword, like we don’t have anything to hang our hat on so let’s just say we’re multiple. Multiple, to me, means no identity. I bet Shannon Dawson uses the word “multiple” to describe his offensive attack. I think that the Cats’ defense needs to find an identity if they are going to improve in 2016, and the best base identity for us defensively is the 4-3.
Kentucky’s secondary should be good no matter what defensive front we play, but the front seven will need a little more help being effective. My argument for playing a 4-3 is built around getting UK’s best frontline defenders more opportunities to influence the game. Matt Elam and Courtney Miggins could both be more productive playing alongside each other as tackles in the interior of the defensive line; Elam could eat the blockers while Miggins applied pressure and created push up the middle. Denzil Ware could be a superstar on the edge. I don’t want my best pass rusher trying to play pass coverage; I want him creating chaos on the edge all the time, which he could do as a full time 4-3 defensive end. I think Eli Brown could be the next great tackling machine at UK, but his best chance to prove me right would be roaming sideline to sideline as a Woodyard-type weak side 4-3 linebacker. The 4-3 would put our most talented linemen and linebackers in the best position to make plays.
While I am against a multiple scheme, I am all for players who are versatile. The Cats on the roster who can make an impact from different spots on the field need to be put in position to do so. I think the 4-3 allows us to more fully utilize the talent we do have in the front seven. If we need to get bigger against the run we can bring in another big body beside Matt Elam in the middle and push Miggins to DE to help set the edge. With pass rush expected to be a problem this season, we need to get our best pass rushers on the line with their hand in the ground when the time comes. Guys like De’niro Laster or Josh Allen, who would be outside linebackers primarily in the 4-3, could slide up to defensive end opposite Ware and wreak havoc on opposing QB’s in obvious passing situations. The 4-3 defense gives Kentucky’s best players more opportunities to make momentum-turning plays.
Mark Stoops is twelve days from kickoff in what is universally viewed as the make or break season for his UK coaching career. I really believe he will get the job done this year. The roster is now full of his recruits, he has finally surrounded himself with his coaches, and after the unveiling of the new practice facility he has officially put his stamp on the program. Put simply, this is his team. Mark Stoops has put this program in position to turn the corner; now all that is left to do is improve on the field and in the win column. To do so, the defense must take a step forward this year. Stoops has more riding on this season than anyone, so I’m sure that he and his staff will put us in whatever situation they believe gives us the best chance to succeed. I believe the 4-3 gives the Cats defense its best opportunity to have success in 2016. What do you think?