Kentucky commits to defense with Stoops

On Tuesday, Kentucky took a very important step forward with its football program.

The thought was that the Wildcats would go in the direction of an up-and-coming offensive mind to rebuild a program that was buried in mediocrity for the better part of the past three years.

Finding someone to bring some excitement back to Lexington by generating more points on the scoreboard and more attractive numbers for the stats book seemed like the priority. After all, the Wildcats ranked 13th in the SEC in total offense this season and last in the SEC in 2011.

But when Kentucky officially announced Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops would replace Joker Phillips as its head coach, the program made a statement that it plans to build with the idea of being a defensive-minded team first.

“Our desire to get better defensively and continue to expand our recruiting base helped guide us to Mark,” athletic director Mitch Barnhart said Tuesday.

And it’s a good direction for the Wildcats to be guided in.

If Kentucky is going to make any sort of positive strides with a football program that has really taken a nosedive, it has to get defensive. Flashy offensive numbers don’t always win games in this league. Just look at Tennessee, which ranked second in the league in total offense (475.9 yards per game) this season.

The Vols have missed out on bowl games the past two seasons and parted ways with Derek Dooley before his third season was even up.

With Stoops coming aboard, the Wildcats have no choice but to improve a defense that was 11th in the league in total defense this season and 10th last season. The Wildcats also surrendered 31 points per game this year.

Stoops, who has been Florida State’s defensive coordinator for three seasons, inherited a unit that ranked 108th nationally in total defense and 94th in scoring defense. It is now the NCAA’s No. 2 defense and is giving up just 15.1 points per game. Eight of his defenders earned 2012 All-ACC honors, including four first-team selections.

It didn’t happen overnight, but it was a nice, gradual transformation that turned the Seminoles’ defense from soft to elite in a few short years.

And Kentucky can look at Florida for comfort in its defensive hire. Will Muschamp was considered one of the best defensive coordinators in the business before leaving Texas. After a 7-6 debut, the Gators are poised for a BCS bowl with an 11-1 record this season. His defense ranked eighth nationally last year and currently is fifth, and has carried a very inconsistent offense all season.

Now, the talent difference between Florida and Kentucky is staggering, and the chances of Kentucky going 11-1 in Stoops’ second season are beyond improbable, considering the personnel deficiencies in Lexington, but immediate progress can be made.

Going the defensive route is a good way to build a solid foundation in the SEC. Muschamp and his Gators have proved that.

Having an improved defense automatically makes a team such as Kentucky, which will yet again be searching for consistent offensive playmakers this spring, better. How much better is yet to be determined, but in a league that lives and dies by defense, this is a good start for the Wildcats.

Finding the right pieces becomes Stoops’ top priority because recruiting at Kentucky is nothing like recruiting at bigger SEC schools. It’s very hard.

You don’t recruit at the bigger schools; you pick and choose. And when your state isn’t close to being as talent-rich as others, evaluation has to be more than just spot-on. You can’t afford to miss on players, and that’s one thing that doomed Phillips.

Stoops brings a big name and some much-needed excitement to Kentucky. He’ll attract athletes -- and we’ve seen plenty of very talented ones call Lexington home -- and he’ll put defense first. With the current roster issues, he’ll need time and patience, but Kentucky is getting off on the right foot by giving precedence to defense.