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Kentucky’s SEC-leading rushing defense putting the Wildcats on the map nationally

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

When it comes to stopping the run, Kentucky’s defense is among the best in the nation.

Going into Saturday’s showdown against Southeastern Conference Eastern division rival Florida, the Wildcats (3-0) are ranked No. 1 in the league and fifth in the nation in rusging defense. Through three games, Kentucky has allowed just an average of 57 yards rushing per game.

Kentucky’s defense has been impressive through the first three games and ranks first in the Southeastern Conference when it comes to stopping the run. (UK Athletics Photo)

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said the team’s technique is better and credits defensive line coach Derrick LeBlanc and defensive coordinator Matt House for the team’s recent turnaround on defense.

“I think Matt House has done a great job with the structure of the defense, out position on the football. We were determined as I’ve mentioned many times to get some things fixed and it starts with just the overall structure and position on the ball,” Stoops said. “It comes from experience, it comes from guys being around, it comes from strength and depth. There’s a lot of things that go into it. But, you know the number one thing it starts with is pride. The guys have a great sense of pride about them to do things the right way.”

For Stoops, a former defensive coordinator at Florida State, seeing the defensive unit elevate their play to the next level brings him a great deal of pride.

“There will be challenges ahead, just like this week. It is what it is, and we embrace that and we are going to try our very best every week and I appreciate our team’s effort to get things fixed and we’re going to go watch that film for hours and see the good things we did and bad things and try to get some things corrected as we move forward.”

In addition to taking pride in making stops, Stoops and his staff have emphasized the importance of tackling, a consistent issue in his first four seasons at the helm.

“That was a big point of emphasis also in the offseason,” Stoops said. “You have heard us talk about how strength and technique is a big piece of it. But yes, we did not want to get mushed or pushed around. There were too many yards after contact last year and too many third and mediums and third and shorts. Now, when we are in position, they are second and long or third and long. That is a big difference. Even second and seven vs. second and two. Just being stronger at the point of contact. Part of that is strength and conditioning, I think it is technique and I think it is positioning on the football. But we are better at third downs because we are better at run defense. “

Florida coach Jim McElwain also has been impressed with Kentucky’s improvement on the defense and added the Wildcats will be tough to overcome this weekend.

“His [Mark Stoops] years that he’s been there, they’ve built it to this and I’ll say it even back to when we played against them when I was at another school in this league,” he said. “By far, the best overall Kentucky team that they’ve had there in a long time.”

In order to keep climbing the proverbial ladder in the conference, Stoops said stopping the run will continue to be a top priority.

“We know if you rush the ball for one more yard than an opponent in SEC games last year you had an 80 percent chance of winning the game,” he said. “If you outrush them by 50 yards it’s 88 percent. So, rush defense and rushing the ball is pretty important.”

Jones out: Stoops said Thursday linebacker Jordan Jones won’t play against the Gators Saturday. Jones has an undisclosed shoulder injury and didn’t play in last week’s conference-opening win at South Carolina.

Eli Brown will likely fill Jones’ slot at weak side linebacker, with redshirt freshman Jamar “Boogie” Watson filling serving as a backup to Brown.

Lots of Love: Kentucky senior middle linebacker Courtney Love was named to the AllState Good Works Team.

“I’m so proud of Courtney,” Stoops said. “He exemplifies everything you’re looking for in a student-athlete. The fact he’s being recognized on a national level doesn’t surprise me because of the way he serves other people.”

Gametracker: Florida at Kentucky, 7:30 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: SEC Network, 98.1 FM, WBUL.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at Keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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