HOOVER, Ala. -- The past two seasons have been internally trying for Kentucky coach Mark Stoops -- and it's been about more than the seven total wins in his first two years with the Wildcats.
The defensive mind and former defensive back has had to partake in many a long breathing session because of the play of his defense. This is Stoops' bread and butter. He was one of the sport's hottest defensive coordinating names at Florida State, and now he's had to watch a revamped unit trudge through the SEC ranking in the bottom four in the league in total defense the past two seasons.
Giving up an average of 400-plus yards in his first 24 games at Kentucky hasn't exactly been the most flattering start for Stoops, but as he's coped with dedicated patience, Stoops sees reason to hope. Despite losing stars on the edge in Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith, Stoops thinks his 2015 defense might be the best he has had in Lexington.
"I see the overall defense being more effective," Stoops said. "I feel good about the overall progress of the defense and identity of our defense."
Stoops, who has watched his team surrender 31 points per game over the past two seasons, is optimistic about his defense because he's finally starting to see true SEC talent and depth. With the departures of Dupree and Smith, the Wildcats lost 25 sacks from the past two seasons, but Stoops likes the committee vying for the opportunity to replace those studs.
The committee is led by three highly coveted recruits who are starting to tap into their true potential. Jason Hatcher, Denzil Ware and C.J. Johnson could all have a major impact in the pass-rushing department. Hatcher, who spurned USC for Kentucky, could step right into Dupree's spot at Jack linebacker, and Ware, who was once a Florida State commit, could rotate in there or line up outside in another one of defensive coordinator D.J. Elliot's 3-4 formations. Johnson, who was mostly a third-down specialist last season, should have a more prominent role on the outside and at defensive end.
Inside, 6-foot-4, 335-pound Melvin Lewis, a junior college transfer, could get quality help at nose tackle from sophomore Matt Elam, who was a four-star prospect in the 2014 class. Farrington Huguenin and Regie Meant could also be valuable options up front.
Stoops also thinks he might have his most complete group at linebacker, headlined by inside man Josh Forrest, who led the team with 110 tackles and had eight more for loss in 2014. Forrest comes from a long line of exceptional inside linebackers to head Kentucky's defense, and Stoops thinks he's the perfect anchor for Elliot's defense after adding even more muscle during the offseason.
"He was always a great pass defender and could run extremely well," Stoops said of Forrest. "I think he’s made himself more psychical during the offseason."
Though Stoops said he'd like to get more depth inside, having guys like Ware and Hatcher to help outside should help take pressure off the middle of the field.
Where Stoops must find improvement is in his secondary. Though Stoops was pleased with the progress his safeties made this spring, he still isn't satisfied with the cornerbacks, who have really struggled with one-on-one coverage. Kentucky has ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in pass defense each of the past two seasons, but safety A.J. Stamps is confident that this group will be better, thanks to extra 15-to-20-minute workouts the defensive backs have gone through after each summer workout to improve their technique and stamina.
"The secondary didn’t do a good job last year," Stamps said. "We didn’t meet the expectations we wanted to meet, but we are making more improvement than we did last year. We are further than we were last year at this time.
"We don’t let a day go by where we aren’t doing something. ... We’re making a big improvement from the first day we went out there to do these drills to now. We’re only getting better."
Even with three starters returning in the secondary, Stoops seems more excited about a group of freshmen that has three players towering over 6-foot.
This defense has a ways to go, but there is a genuine confidence beaming from Stoops and his players. And there has to be. When you're a team that was so close to a bowl berth, but watched its defense get scorched at inopportune times, you have to get better on that side of the ball, or you can't evolve.