In two seasons as a defensive coordinator, Brad White has checked a ton of boxes. The Wildcats have put together consecutive top-40 finishes per SP+ while producing four draft picks. Meanwhile, Calvin Taylor Jr., Quinton Bohanna, Yusuf Corker, Jamin Davis, and Boogie Watson have each received All-SEC honors but none have made an appearance on the first-team.
After years of building under Mark Stoops, the Kentucky defense has established a brand and identity. Now the expectation should be for this unit to be one of the top seven or eight defenses in the SEC yearly. The pieces are all there to accomplish this goal in 2021, but one specific area will need to be a major success for the defense.
Last season, Kentucky’s defense had a ridiculous challenge. Facing three of the top-10 yards per play offenses in the sport — Alabama, Florida, Ole Miss — it was going to very difficult for the unit to post great numbers. That showed up in the national ranks, but in the SEC this was a defense that was among the best in the toughest league in college football.
Kentucky finished 92nd in success rate but that was good for seventh in the SEC. The Wildcats finished 94th in yards per play allowed but this was good for fourth in the SEC. These were both major drops from 2019 when the Wildcats finished 50th in success rate and 39th in yards per play. However, White’s unit figured out a way to get the job done. Creating takeaways played a major role.
The Wildcats finished T-3 nationally in turnover margin along with Alabama at plus-10. The Wildcats produced 16 interceptions and 23 pass breakups to go along with six fumbles recovered and nine fumbles forced. These were some excellent ratios to go along with a unit that was able to force plenty of havoc. This led the way for the defense but can be hard for a unit to sustain year over year.
However, one specific area that can remain steady is when it comes to finishing drives.
Points per scoring opportunity can also be categorized as the extended red zone. This is a measure that kicks in whenever the offense has possession of the football inside their opponents’ 40. From there, the offense should be in field goal range or need a few yards to get there. However, multiple first downs could be required to score a touchdown. This is where many games are won and lost as the field shrinks.
After finishing 78th nationally and 12th in the SEC in points per scoring opportunity in 2019, Kentucky made a nice leap last season. Foes scored just 4.0 points per trip as Kentucky finished 49th nationally and fifth in the SEC. For Kentucky to be good to very good on defense, the unit has to succeed in this area.
Back in 2018, the Wildcats were electric in the extended red zone. The defense finished 33rd in success rate and 40th in yards per play, but what made them one of the best defenses in the game was the points per scoring opportunity area. The group allowed just 3.5 points per trip, and that finished eighth nationally.
Kentucky has never really been an uber-aggressive defense. The Wildcats do not attack gaps ferociously to create havoc. This defense has leaned towards a bend-but-don’t-break model so they can capitalize on the offense’s mistakes. Then on third down, Kentucky would allow its pass rushers to feast in obvious passing situations. However, that may not be on the roster currently.
The Wildcats finished 113th nationally in sack rate last season (4.04%). In the previous two seasons, we saw the Wildcats finish fifth in 2018 (9.95%) and 25th (7.89%) in 2019. Heading into 2021, the Wildcats do not appear to have the obvious answers to fix their pass rush. That means the group must pick it up in other areas.
With a veteran secondary, this unit should be able to limit big plays and make offenses dink-and-dunk the football down the field. However, this style of play will create plenty of scoring opportunities. The Wildcats must find a way to create stops when entering the extended red zone. Without a consistent pass rush and a bunch of takeaways, this will be vital to success this fall.
Points per opportunity will tell the story of the 2021 Kentucky defense.