Since Mark Stoops is a defensive coordinator, you can bet there will be a heavy emphasis on defense by this coaching staff. That's not to say the offense won't be important as well, but for the purposes of this write up, we'll start with Stoops and his style of defense.
The Kentucky defense will be run by defensive coordinator, D.J. Eliot, who has been with Mark Stoops on and offer for years at several schools, including their latest stop at Florida State. You can expect Eliot to run the same kind of defense as Stoops has run for years, maybe with a few tweaks, but I wouldn't expect a big deviation.
Mark Stoops has employed a 4-3 defense, in contrast to Rick Minter's 3-4 defense. That's one fundamental change that we'll obviously see on the defensive side of the ball this spring and going into next fall.
The expectation is that Stoops will play a cover-3 zone defense. Basically there will be three deep defenders covering an area of the field. Normally those three defenders will be the corners and the free-safety. They have no responsibility in run support.
In the run game, it's necessary in this defense to have what is referred to as "force" defenders. These defenders play the outside on each side of the field and push the ball carrier in the run game back to the inside towards the other defenders. If Kentucky is in a cover-3 zone defense, the force defenders will be the strong safety and an outside linebacker.
Six other men on the field (defensive linemen and linebackers not in coverage) have to cover the six gaps across the front line (center-guard, guard-tackle and tackle-tight end). In the cover-3 the backside force defender will be the cutback guy (strong safety or outside linebacker).
In the cover-3, the deep pass defenders will split the field across three ways. Zones will start out around 14 yards from the line of scrimmage and go all the way to the endzone. The field is divided about 13 yards across for each defender.
Underneath, the zone begins from about five yards from the line of scrimmage to about 14 yards deep where the deep zone begins. These areas are covered by the linebackers and the safety not in the deep zone.
The zones to the outside are the flat area and reach from the sidelines to an area between the hash mark and the numbers on each side of the field. These areas are usually covered by the outside linebackers.
The other underneath zone is the curl area. This reaches from the hash to the edge of the flat zone. From the hash into the middle of the field is called the hook zone. These are both in the middle of the field. These areas are usually covered by the safety not dropping deep and the middle linebacker.
The first five yards are not covered by a zone. Anything that happens in that area the defenders are expected to react and make a play on the ball.
Another wrinkle in the cover-3 defense is playing two safeties deep instead of two corners deep. This is sometimes referred to as "cloud" or "sky".
When "cloud" is called, one of the corners will shift in as the force defender and he has primary run-support. One of the outside linebackers will cover the underneath zone area vacated by the cornerback. When "sky" is called, the strong safety has run-support while the corners and free-safety are playing the deep zone. The safeties can also swap places with the free-safety playing run-support and the strong-safety playing the deep zone.
One thing that you'll notice in Stoops's defense is that he will not do a lot of blitzing. Many of the sacks that his defense gets will be coverage sacks. The expectation is that UK will use the zone blitz as a way to pressure the quarterback without bringing excessive numbers of players. He'll use the zone blitz on obvious passing downs.
The zone blitz can be several combinations of players being dropped into coverage while others go after the quarterback. A defensive lineman may drop into coverage while a couple of linebackers or a safety goes after the quarterback.
Stoops will do this in order to confuse the quarterback and force him into a bad decision, i.e. holding onto the ball too long or throwing the ball to what he thinks is a safe area on the field.
There are many other nuances and variations to the cover-3 defense that Stoops and Eliot will utilize. There are situations where the 3-deep will be divided into quarters (usually the strong side) of the field for two defensive backs and the other defensive back is responsible for the other half of the field. There are disguised corner blitz packages.
Kentucky has traditionally struggled on defense, even when there were quality play-makers on the roster. The difference that we should see in the coming seasons is that Kentucky will be a well coached team on defense. The focus on defense by Stoops will be a much appreciated change from the previous regime.
Stoops will make sure his team is fundamentally sound and executes to the best of their ability. That will make an enormous difference in what the defense is able to accomplish.
Kentucky has quality athletes on the defensive side of the ball, but they don't have enough. Does Kentucky have the overall talent to execute the defensive philosophy of Mark Stoops? We'll find out more as spring practice unfolds.