A look at UK's shift to a 3-4 defense following spring ball
Last season, UK’s transition to a 3-4 defensive scheme was merely in its experimental phase.
Entering his second year as Kentucky’s head coach, Mark Stoops thought a 3-4 scheme might be one way for his team to maximize its pressure in the backfield. The look involved moving star defensive end and expected first-round NFL Draft pick Bud Dupree to outside linebacker, replacing him on a three-man defensive line with fellow stud defensive end Jason Hatcher.
That package maximized the number of dominant rushers UK could employ on one given play, and although that package lacked consistency at times it was the dawn of a new era on Kentucky’s defense.
One year later, with Dupree and fellow star defensive end Za’Darius Smith headed to the NFL, the Cats are in the process of moving to a 3-4 defense full-time, or at least as full-time as any base defense is used in the modern spread-it-out age of college football.
The Cats began lining up in a 3-4 look in earnest this spring as it aims to transition to a new base defense for the fall. And while there are still growing pains to endure, the reviews from Lexington are all positive regarding the new-look defense.
Hatcher is back for a junior season, and many expect the 6-foot-3, 250-pound former four-star prospect to take the next step to every-down impact star in 2015. Alongside him will be 340-pound defensive tackle Melvin Lewis, a senior and former junior college transfer who logged 37 tackles and a forced fumble splitting time as a defensive tackle in a 4-3 and a nose tackle or defensive end on a three-man line.
That tandem will serve as the lifeblood for the UK defensive line, and perhaps the entire unit entering this fall. Sophomore nose tackle Matt Elam had to drop 20 pounds just to get his weight in the neighborhood of 360 pounds, and as he works himself into better shape that large, powerful man should be able to anchor a 3-4 scheme as the man in the middle. The Cats hope he can begin to do that in at least a limited capacity this season. Fellow defensive tackle C.J. Johnson also showed tremendous improvement this spring and should be a vital piece of the defensive line rotation.
As for its linebackers, the move to a 3-4 shouldn’t be a terribly difficult transition. Jabari Johnson appears to be an ideal fit to fill Dupree’s former role as the converted defensive end playing outside linebacker and primarily rushing off the edge. Inside linebacker Josh Forrest received rave reviews from coaches this spring, and he hauled in two picks in last Saturday’s open scrimmage.
Ryan Flannigan and Khalid Henderson, both of whom have starting experience at weak side linebacker, should both be able to see the field together or at least split a healthy number of reps between them this fall.
So while Kentucky is still finding the right fits for its new defense — Stoops spoke at the end of spring ball about how moving to a 3-4 impacts the way he recruits on defense and how it amplifies the significance of hybrid players — it does return plenty of talent that should find a home on the unit this fall.
And when considering how often UK blitzed in obvious passing situations (more than most), the 3-4 gives the Cats flexibility in terms of varying blitz packages from either side of the formation.
“With the 3-4, it’s just more balanced. You just look at it structurally, it’s more balanced on where you can bring movement and where you can bring pressures and changeups, so to us it’s just more balanced and it gives us again more flexibility in our disguise with our pressures,” Stoops told the Louisville Courier-Journal earlier this spring.
It’s also worth noting the depth UK maintains in the secondary, and how the 3-4 better lends itself to substituting into nickel or dime packages when opponents spread the formation. The Cats can keep three linemen and three linebackers on the field in a nickel situation, or it can go with two at one spot and four at the other, or vice versa, allowing for more versatility on the defense.
With returning upperclassmen like Fred Tiller, Cody Quinn, J.D. Harmon, Marcus McWilson, Blake McClain, Kendall Randolph, A.J. Stamps and others, UK has the depth in the secondary to give a number of different looks, and some of those players (like McClain) can even come down into the box and play a strong safety/linebacker hybrid role when UK is unable to sub.
Ultimately, UK is still moving players slightly out of position in certain areas (like Jabari Johnson) to make the 3-4 fit. But no team is perfectly equipped to change systems in one year. What’s important is UK has the talent to get the ball rolling on the transition, and down the line it will benefit the entire unit as it aims to compete against the high-powered offenses of the SEC.
Kentucky showed flashes of excellence on defense this spring, but what really matters is how the defense looks come the fall. If the Cats continue to put in work on their own time until the start of fall camp, they’ll look better than many might have expected just two months earlier.