Rick Minter's challenge upon taking over the Kentucky defense last season was clear.
His boss, Joker Phillips, wanted to see a more aggressive defense, a defense that created more turnovers and a defense that persevered.
"It’s our goal on defense is to be known as one of the nastier units, one of the more efficient units and it’s hard to prepare for us, and you've got to bring your hard hat every time you go against us on defense," Minter said.
Last season was just the start.
The Wildcats' final stats weren't great. They finished 10th in the league in both total defense and scoring defense. It took a while to adjust to Minter's new system, and there were some hiccups along the way, most notably the three-game stretch against Florida, LSU and South Carolina. Kentucky lost all three games and gave up a combined 137 points. The low point was the 54-3 drubbing at South Carolina.
"We played well against LSU," Minter said. "Some of the numbers don’t show it. And, yet, we laid a complete egg against South Carolina. We’ve got to become more consistent. No matter who we have out there, we have to play the game much more consistently. We like to say that championships are our goals. You want to have a winning season and go to bowl games, but your highest goal is to win the East and try to play for the national championship and try to fall in line with all the rest of these teams.
"To do that, you have to play great defense every week."
What was so encouraging for Phillips and Minter was the way the Wildcats finished the season and the promise that so many of the younger players showed.
In three of its last four games, Kentucky held opponents to 19 or fewer points, including a 30-13 win over Ole Miss and a 10-7 win over Tennessee. In the 19-10 loss to Georgia, the Wildcats held the Bulldogs to 317 total yards and then limited the Vols to 276 total yards the next week. In those last two games, Kentucky also forced seven turnovers.
"I like what I see in the young guys," Phillips said. "We got a chance to see a lot of them during the last part of last season, on defense especially, against Georgia and Tennessee. We had some injuries and were forced to play some of the young guys, and it was very encouraging how we played on defense. They were running around and making plays, a lot of true freshmen -- Bud Dupree, Eric Dixon, Ashely Lowery, Christian Coleman, all those young kids. We had them at every level --defensive line, safety, linebacker and corner."
It's time to take that next step in 2012, and the Wildcats will be without their two most productive players from a year ago -- Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy.
"We really proved to ourselves at the end of the season, one that we could compete with anybody in the conference, and two, our scheme works if we go out and play and execute it and play with emotion," Minter said. "I think we at least set a tone, got some foundations laid. Now, it’s all about what we do this year."