In his previous stop at Florida State, Stoops turned a defense that was ranked No. 108 in total yardage allowed before his arrival and made it the nation’s No. 2 defense in his final season. He parlayed that success into the head-coaching gig at Kentucky, where he has the Wildcats playing well on that side of the ball.
Kentucky ranks No. 20 nationally in passing yards allowed (No. 3 in the SEC), No. 15 in scoring defense (No. 5 in the SEC), No. 12 in passing efficiency defense and No. 8 in turnovers.
We’ll take a closer look at what Kentucky brings defensively into its showdown with LSU, and here’s the projected starting lineup according to the Wildcats’ depth chart:
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
DE: Za’Darius Smith (Sr., 6-6, 263)
DT: Melvin Lewis (Jr., 6-4, 320)
DT: Mike Douglas (Sr., 6-4, 288)
DE/LB: Alvin “Bud” Dupree (Sr., 6-4, 264)
DE/LB: Jason Hatcher (So. 6-3, 242)
MLB: Josh Forrest (Jr., 6-3, 236)
WLB: Khalid Henderson (Jr., 6-1, 228)
NICKEL: Blake McClain (So., 5-11, 194)
CB: Fred Tiller (Jr., 6-0, 170)
S: Ashely Lowery (Sr., 6-1, 220)
S: A.J. Stamps (Jr., 6-0, 199)
CB: Cody Quinn (Jr., 5-10, 172)
Key Backups: LB Ryan Flannigan (Jr., 6-2, 225), CB Marcus McWilson (So., 6-0, 210), DT C.J. Johnson (Jr., 6-3, 299)
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
The trademark of Stoops’ defense is his secondary’s zone coverage. Kentucky has really bought into that style of defense, and it’s paid off in the turnover department. After coming down with only three interceptions in 2013, the Wildcats already have 11 picks through six games. Kentucky had a pair of interceptions returned for touchdowns last week against Louisiana-Monroe, and five of their picks have come in the fourth quarter.
That zone defense has also limited the big plays. Kentucky’s only surrendered six plays of 30-plus yards, which ranks them No. 5 nationally, and only two plays of 40-plus yards, good for No. 2 nationally.
That Kentucky secondary’s led by its two ball-hawking safeties. AJ Stamps, a junior college transfer, had interceptions in three of his first five games on this level. He also ranks sixth on the team with 27 tackles. His safety mate, three-year starter Ashely Lowery has a pair of interceptions this season, both of which came in the fourth quarter.
Starting corners Fred Tillery and Cody Quinn each have four pass breakups this season, and the Wildcats like to implement Blake McClain in the nickel role.
But you can expect Kentucky to operate primarily out of its base 4-3 defense because of LSU’s two-back set.
Kentucky doesn’t tend to bring a ton of pressure in blitz packages, relying more on its coverage to produce sacks. It also helps having someone like Bud Dupree, one of the nation’s best defensive ends.
Dupree’s 19 career sacks make him the SEC leader among all active players. He has 28 tackles this season, three sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss and he even had the game-winning pick six against South Carolina. At 6-foot-4, 264 pounds, Dupree’s an absolute freak and will present a serious challenge for LSU’s tackles.
The man opposite Dupree isn’t too shabby either. Za’Darius Smith was a third-team All-SEC selection last season. His 31 tackles rank him third on the team, and he also has 1.5 sacks. The Wildcats No. 3 DE, Jason Hatcher, leads the team with 5.5 tackles for loss.
At defensive tackle, look for CJ Johnson to enter in third-down passing situations. He has 2.5 sacks this season, primarily in a reserve role.
Kentucky’s top two linebackers lead the team in tackles, combining for 81 stops this season. Josh Forrest, a converted wide receiver, also has 5.5 tackles for loss. Kahlid Henderson has a pair of fumble recoveries, which ranks him No. 8 nationally. Also look for Ryan Flannigan to have a big role in this one with Kentucky expected to play with three linebackers most of the time.