Four Downs: Attempting to make sense of the Kentucky Wildcats' defensive calamity

One of the most frequent questions I get at our site, via social media or on the various radio programs I appear is "How did UK get to this point on defense?"

The Wildcats enter this week's game against South Carolina ranked No. 122 out of 128 FBS programs in both scoring defense (43.7 ppg) and total defense (528 ypg). They've seen those numbers swell from 27.4 and 394.2 last season, which represented the third consecutive year of improvement under Mark Stoops.

"So how does this happen in Year 4 of the program under Stoops?" they ask.

"I thought we were getting highly-ranked recruiting classes," others say, perplexed.

"Why is Louisville doing so much better with weaker recruiting classes?" is a pointed one that comes up a lot as the rival Cardinals are enjoying a breakout season.

Those are fair questions. It's true that the fans have been told by just about every major scouting service how well the Cats have recruited since Stoops arrived in Lexington. But not all of those players are lining up on the defensive side of the ball, and there are other factors that have led to what we're seeing on the field this season.

In this edition of All Wildcats' "Four Downs," we examine some plausible explanations -- aside from simple execution -- for why we're seeing such a major struggle on the side of the ball that was supposed to be the head coach's area of expertise. 

1. Fifth-Year Seniors

Almost every successful program in the country has several players who have been in the system for five years after redshirting early in their careers. Kentucky has one. Defensive back J.D. Harmon is the only fifth-year senior on that side of the ball. Nobody in the D-Line. Nobody in the linebacker corps. Kentucky's front seven still isn't on par with many of its opponents, despite advancements in facilities and the strength and conditioning program. Perhaps when some of these guys have been in the program for four and five years that will change, but it's not really a luxury that Stoops has right now. For comparison's sake, Louisville has four fifth-year seniors on its starting defense, a fourth-year senior and two fourth-year juniors. It makes a huge difference.

2. Attrition

One reason Kentucky doesn't have many experienced players in its front seven is some bad luck with players who figured to be impact guys in 2016. Outside linebacker/end Jason Hatcher, the most celebrated player from Stoops' first class and a head-to-head recruiting victory over Southern Cal, was dismissed from the program in the off-season after a series of team rules violations. Lloyd Tubman, a high-potential player in Hatcher's mold from the 2014 class, was dismissed after a rape allegation. Although he would not be indicted, he was not permitted to re-enroll at UK and is now at Austin Peay. And, finally, this summer saw senior defensive tackle Regie Meant dismissed following an unspecified personal issue. News later surfaced that he faced firearm charges in Florida, and UK has a strict no-guns policy for the team. He transferred and joined the Jacksonville State program. If one had to pick the three defensive players that the Cats could least afford to lose since the end of last season, it may have been those three guys. It's been a devastating blow. You can also toss in the failure of 2015 signee Javon Provitt to qualify as part of the bad luck dossier. Many analysts expected him to be an instant-impact player, and he would have been in his second year with the program. 

3. Linebacker Blues

Stoops has a strong resume as a defensive coordinator and recruiter, but his main area of expertise has always been the secondary. Kentucky has a nice depth chart there, but linebacker has been another story. Nebraska transfer Courtney Love (3 GS, 18 tackles) has yet to provide the impact he was expected to bring this season. Minnesota transfer De'Niro Laster (0 GS, 7 tackles) hasn't either, getting most of his snaps on special teams. Juco signee Jordan Bonner arrived late in August and hasn't fully absorbed the playbook, relegating him to a special teams role to date. Jordan Jones (3 GS, 35 tackles) is flashing signs of star potential but is just a sophomore and somewhat undersized. The same could be said for Josh Allen and Eli Brown attempting to fill Hatcher's old spot. There's some talent, some real athleticism, but not a lot of "sand in the pants" as old-school coaches are fond of saying. One player who fits the physical mold is 2016 U.S. Army All-American Kash Daniel, the Bluegrass State's reigning "Mr. Football," but he is still in the learning process. Promising 2014 signee Nico Firios hasn't flashed yet, and classmate Dorian Hendrix transferred out of the program. Another 2014 signee, Kobie Walker, had a good spring and was drawing praise heading into the season, but has landed in the coach's doghouse after being suspended prior to the Florida game. Highly regarded 2015 signee Kengera Daniel also opened this season serving an undisclosed suspension. The position group as a whole needs to be performing at a higher level. 

4. Scheme Second Thoughts

The staff appears to be moving away from the scheme it was attempting to feature when the season began. The personnel just doesn't seem to justify it, and we're already seeing many more 4-man fronts over the last two games. Matt Elam's inconsistency at nose tackle, coupled with the lack of big, physical defensive ends and linebackers, just didn't bode well for the 3-man look. Give the staff credit for recognizing it quickly. There were some signs in the second half of the New Mexico State game that UK was playing much better in the "even" front with some other adjustments. Will it carry over to the South Carolina game? It better. This is a crucial game for Stoops and the overall direction of the program. The Gamecocks enter the matchup as bad on the offensive side of the ball as UK is on the defensive side. Something has to give. 

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