Better/Worse in 2016: Kentucky pass defense
Kentucky’s defense let it down in the second half of 2015 as the Wildcats dropped six of their final seven games. The lone bright spot in trailing in so many games was the fact that it kept opposing passing numbers down.
Teams winning in the fourth quarter don’t throw the football.
Kentucky ranked in the top half of the SEC in passing yards allowed and touchdown passes allowed. A 10th-place showing in opposing passer rating reveals that it was not defensive excellence, but a lack of exposure to opposing passing games that kept those other numbers down.
Need more proof? The Wildcats faced 343 passing attempts in 2015, the fewest in the league.
Passing yards allowed per game, SEC rank: 198.1, fifth in the SEC
Touchdown passes allowed, SEC rank: 14, sixth-fewest in the SEC
Opposing passer rating, SEC rank: 122.4, 10th in the SEC
Most yards allowed, opponent: 382, Mississippi State
300-yard passers allowed: 1
Coordinator D.J. Eliot likes to mix 4-3 and 3-4 looks with a player lining up at end or linebacker depending on the situation. Getting after the passer was a challenge for this group in 2015, as the Wildcats finished last in the league with just 17 sacks.
It will be a different group trying to rectify that this season, as five players who started in the front seven for the season finale are gone.
Denzil Ware (below) played his way into the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman last fall, and responded with 39 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and a sack.
He was a terror in the spring game, piling up 10 tackles and four sacks, and the coaching staff is hoping that Ware uses his speed and athleticism to help the defense boost its sack total.
“Denzil really had some good rushes,” coach Mark Stoops told the Lexington Herald-Leader after the spring game. “That’s what you like to see when it’s predictable pass and we’re playing it straight, we’re rushing four and no games and you just need to win a one-on-one. He won several of those today.”
BALL IN THE AIR
While the front seven will undergo a makeover, the secondary returns largely intact and it’s led by a rising star in Chris Westry. Derrick Baity also started the season finale at corner while another newcomer, Mike Edwards, started at safety.
Blake McClain was the starter at nickel back for the Louisville game, and he’s back, too. Part-time starters J.D. Harmon and Marcus McWilson also return. Three corners will also join this group with the freshmen report later this summer, so depth shouldn’t be a concern.
Westry had a trial by fire last season as a true freshman and held up pretty well. He only had one interception, but defended a team-high 10 passes. He’s tall (6-foot-4) and fast, and a good bet to turn a few more of those defended passes into turnovers in his sophomore season.
Stoops said during the spring he is surprised any time a pass is caught against Westry.
“I like his work ethic and he takes the coaching and he takes hard coaching and we just got to stay on him and he’s got to have a great summer,” Stoops told VaughtsViews.com. “Because he’s just so darn big, I don’t want him to grow into a linebacker.”
Can the front seven generate enough pass rush to keep the secondary from getting exposed? The Wildcats generated only 17 sacks last fall, so opposing quarterbacks had far too much time to survey the field and find open receivers.
Ware, Matt Elam, Regie Meant and the rest of the defensive line will need to spend more time in opposing backfields this fall, and the occasional well-timed blitz from a couple of Big Ten transfers at linebacker, Courtney Love (Nebraska, pictured) and De’Niro Laster (Minnesota), would be nice, too.
ONE STAT THAT MUST CHANGE IN 2016
While there certainly needs to be more sacks this fall, there’s another stat that needs reversing. Only two SEC teams allowed more than Kentucky’s 6.9 yards per attempt last season.
With a better offense and improved pass rush, the secondary will face more passing plays than it did last fall. Bringing the yards per attempt down as the number of attempts climb must be a priority.
Kentucky gave up 17 completions of 30 yards or longer. Only three SEC teams allowed more.
BETTER OR WORSE?
Passing defense stats can be a misleading. Last season, the bottom five teams in passing yards allowed in the SEC went to bowl games while Missouri and Kentucky, both ranked in the top five, did not.
So, success in this metric doesn’t always translate to victories. If Kentucky plays from ahead a bit more often on the scoreboard this season, it will face more passing plays. More passing plays means more yards and touchdowns allowed.
It won’t be a huge surprise if Kentucky finds that elusive sixth win and returns to a bowl game for the first time since 2010, but doesn’t produce the same sort of pass defense stats it did in 2015.