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April 17, 2007

Improving the defense key for Kentucky

During eight seasons as an NFL cornerback, Steve Brown faced the likes of Steve Largent, John Stallworth and Tim Brown.

But man coverage against Hall of Fame wide receivers is a breeze compared to the challenge he'll face in his first football season as Kentucky's defensive coordinator. He must patch the holes some of them gaping in what was one of the nation's worst defensive units. He's counting on a new attitude, better technique and improved conditioning to be the spackle.

If he fails, the Wildcats will struggle to match last season's 8-5 finish. But if Brown has an impact like first-year defensive coordinators Ron English did at Michigan or Texas A&M's Gary Darnell or DeWayne Walker did at UCLA in 2006, then the Wildcats should continue their upward trend.

"We learned how to win (last year)," said Brown, who coached the Wildcats secondary the previous four seasons. "Now we have to learn to dominate. A lot of that is on our shoulders as a defense. Our offense has improved dramatically and is very good at what they do. We (on defense) have to work our butts off to keep our end of the bargain. If we do that we could be pretty special."

Special may be defined differently in Lexington than in Knoxville, Athens, Tuscaloosa, Baton Rouge or Gainesville no one is predicting a Southeastern Conference championship. But the fact remains that last year Kentucky enjoyed its best season and posted its first bowl victory in more than two decades. It did that in spite of ranking 118th out of 119 nationally in total defense.

The Wildcats' offense averaged 26.69 points a year ago and returns quarterback Andre' Woodson, running back Rafael Little, receiver Keenan Burton and tight end Jacob Tamme - all of whom have earned All-SEC recognition within the last two seasons.

Long way to go
Kentucky's defense must get better at preventing big plays. Here's a list of touchdown plays that covered 30 yards or more against the Wildcats in 2006:
By Louisville:
Michael Bush, 48-yard run
George Stripling, 38-yard run
By Ole Miss:
Marshay Green, 47-yard pass from Brent Schaeffer
By Florida:
Jemalle Cornelius, 33-yard pass from Chris Leak
By Central Michigan:
Damien Linson, 61-yard run
Dwayne Bowe, 48-yard pass from JaMarcus Russell
By Mississippi State:
Tony Burks, 75-yard pass from Michael Henig
Tony Burks, 36-yard pass from Michael Henig
By Vanderbilt:
Sean Walker, 35-yard run
Earl Bennett, 41-yard pass from Chris Nickson
By Clemson:
Durrell Barry, 32-yard pass from Will Proctor
Not surprisingly, there were no Wildcats on the All-SEC defense last year, but there is reason to believe Kentucky's defense can be significantly improved.

First of all, eight starters return. That group includes linebacker Wesley Woodyard, who was second in the SEC with 122 tackles.

And even though the defense had its overall issues, the Wildcats did force 32 turnovers, shut out Ole Miss in the second half of a victory and made crucial stops in the fourth quarter to secure victories over Central Michigan, Georgia, Vanderbilt and Louisiana-Monroe.

But perhaps the best reason to be encouraged is that Brown, who played at Oregon under Kentucky coach Rich Brooks, was promoted to replace former defensive coordinator Mike Archer. Anyone who doubts how much impact a new coordinator can make need only reference English, Darnell and Walker.

Under English, Michigan improved from 36th nationally in total defense in 2005 to 10th in 2006. Meanwhile, Texas A&M moved from 107th to 46th. UCLA climbed the charts from 113th to 35th.

An argument could be made those teams, especially Michigan, had more talent on hand. Brown said his main task is improving the players he has at his disposal.

"The most important thing with these players is having them all work extremely hard at becoming fundamentally sound so no matter who they're going against they're always conscientious of technique," he said. "When you become a technician, talented players became great and not-so-talented players become good.

"We're striving like heck to make sure every player on the team is as good as he possibly can be. We had some success in spots last year, and a lot of that is where the guys played confident and understood exactly what they needed to do. That allowed them to play fast and be aggressive. No matter what, we can't have them worried about making mistakes. We're going to let them play hard and fast, teach them what they did wrong, compliment them and embrace the positive things they do."

Of course, there are obviously things that must be fixed. Brown acknowledged Kentucky was particularly vulnerable on the edges in 2006, and depth was also a problem. He believes learning and perfecting the nuances of every position and getting in better condition will improve both areas.

"We're running and stressing (conditioning) more and more and pushing them harder and harder," Brown said. "We don't have the overall talent of Ohio State or LSU, so we've got to be better technicians and in better shape. If we're not as talented as the other guy but play with great technique and outwork them, then we can beat them. We can't just run past people. We have to use proper hands.

"But we have great teachers at this level, and our kids are buying into it."

Woodyard echoed that.

"You've got to make sure you stay in shape," he said. "That allows you to cut back on injuries and mental errors. I can say this: We took our offseason winter workouts real seriously. We did some demanding workouts and demanding running.

"Everybody in our secondary ran in the 4.4s, the linebackers ran good times and the defensive linemen ran good times. I think it's going to allow us to make big plays."

Preventing big plays would be even better.

The Wildcats defense allowed 14 touchdowns on plays from 20 yards or further and 11 from 30 yards or more. Opponents also converted 46 percent (73 of 157) on third down. Only 10 other teams were more generous on third down.

"We gave up too many big plays and that killed us," Woodyard said. "We would get stops on first and second down, but third-down percentages killed us."

Those statistics indirectly show how good Kentucky was on offense. Giving up big plays and allowing opponents to consistently convert on third down isn't usually conducive to posting eight victories.

Woodyard acknowledged that's not likely to happen again unless the Wildcats are significantly better in those areas, especially with Kentucky's 2007 schedule including six opponents Louisville (2), LSU (11), Florida (19), South Carolina (20), Arkansas (29) and Tennessee (36) which were among the top 40 offensive teams last season.

"All the weight is on our shoulders," Woodyard said. "We have to come out and be physical from the get-go. With the schedule we have, we will not win eight games if our defense doesn't step up and hit people in the mouth."

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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