Kentucky fine-tuning defense during open date

An open date on the schedule with the Wildcats at the quarter pole of their season is giving UK defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot an opportunity to assess where his unit stands and fine tune some of the issues it has encountered.

Coming off a third consecutive game in which the Cats held their opponent without a touchdown in the first half and to under 20 points in regulation, Eliot said he’s mostly pleased with what he’s seen so far.

“Ultimately on defense, you’ve got to keep them out of the end zone,” Eliot said after Wednesday’s practice at the Nutter Training Center. “You can give up yards, you can not play perfect, but you’ve got to keep them out of the end zone, and we’ve been able to do that this season… so that’s the main thing I’m pleased with.

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“And to do that,” Eliot added, “you’ve got to be good in situations – third-down defense, red-zone defense, two-minute defense. Those are things you have to be successful at – the turnovers – to play good defense, to play good scoring defense. Sometimes yards don’t really determine it so much as situations.”

Last week’s 36-30 triple-overtime loss at Florida was a prime example. The Cats had what might appear, on the surface, to be poor defensive night. The Gators amassed 532 total yards, 295 through the air and 237 on the ground. But they also had just three points at halftime and 20 when the game went to overtime.

UK held Florida to just five third down conversions on 17 attempts.

There were some individual bright spots, like senior defensive end Za’Darius Smith and sophomore hybrid end/linebacker Jason Hatcher. Smith, who had been relatively quiet through the first two games of the season, had a career-high 11 tackles, one tackle for loss and one pass break-up. Hatcher chipped in with four tackles, including two tackles for loss and a key sack in the fourth quarter.

“I think (Smith) just played within the defense better,” Eliot said, “which has allowed him to make more plays.

And in regard to Hatcher: “You get to the second year with those guys, they start making plays, which is good. It’s always a growth process, especially at that position.”

One player the staff is not concerned about is senior defensive end Alvin “Bud” Dupree, who has been relatively quiet – at least statistically – through the first three weeks of the season.

Don’t be fooled, Eliot warned. Dupree’s presence is being felt.

“Once they know you’re really good, they’re going to try to prevent you from making plays, and that’s kind of what they’re doing with Bud,” Eliot said. “But he’s playing very well. He’s taking a lot of things away.

“Sometimes when you look at who your most important guys are on your team, they’re not always your stat guys. I think that’s evident in the NFL. The highest-paid guys aren’t always the stat guys, it’s the guys who take plays away, and Bud’s been doing that.”

Kentucky has improved to ninth in the SEC in both scoring defense (17.7) and total defense (384.3) after ranking near the bottom in both categories in recent years, but film review has also revealed several areas of concern. The Cats gave up 4.7 yards per rushing attempt, allowed a receiver to have a 15-catch, 216-yard night and dropped an interception in the second half that proved to be a 14-point swing in the game.

“Harping on fundamentals,” Eliot said. “… We’re just focusing on us getting better and harping on the little things.”

Kentucky’s linebacker corps needs to be better against the run, Eliot noted.

“We’ve got to stop the power run game, and those guys have got to be able to defend it,” he said. “… It was how quick we read it and how we triggered and physical we were at the point of attack.”

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