By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky's defense had just two interceptions last season, a number that defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot knows must improve in 2014 for UK to become more competitive.
"We've got to make the plays, and we've got to put them in position to make the plays," said Eliot after Monday's practice. "It's something that we've been emphasizing. We track it every day in practice. We've had some that we had a bunch, and we've had some that we haven't had very many.
"A lot of it just comes down to finishing plays. Sometimes you get them in the right spot then it's a dropped ball or it's a tipped ball that we don't bring down. We do practice it. We practice the fundamentals of that on a regular basis, but we are emphasizing that quite a bit."
Eliot is counting on junior college cornerback A.J. Stamps, who arrived on campus in January, to help create interceptions.
"A.J. has a lot of ability, and he's got great ball skills. I hope that transitions," Eliot said of Stamps, who has gained 10 pounds since arriving at UK. "If you're bigger, stronger, faster then you're a better athlete. As long as they continue to keep their speed and they put that size on, it's good for them."
Here' more insights Eliot offered about the defense.
Question: How has middle linebacker Khalid Henderson looked?
Eliot: "Khalid is better. Khalid is a better player. All those reps have helped him last year during the season. You can tell going into spring he's much further along than he was last year. He's keying things faster. He's assignment sound. He's an improved player."
Question: What has he learned in the first half of spring practice?
Eliot: "Some of the obvious things are that (end) Bud Dupree has got some great, great skills, and not only that, he's got some great leadership. I'm really looking forward to seeing how he progresses and plays in the fall. Along with (end) Za'Darius Smith. Some guys like (tackle) Mike Douglas have stepped up, and I'm hoping to see some great things from him in the fall as well. But, we've just got to take it one day at a time. You can't rush anything. You've got to make sure that you're doing little things. The old saying 'You can't put the cart before the horse,' we've got to make sure we're continuing to do that."
Question: Has he noticed any difference in defensive back Blake McClain since they've limited him to two primary positions compared to last season when he played more spots?
Eliot: "Blake McClain, last year was a true freshman. We saw the ability and didn't know where to play him. That's why he played in training camp at a bunch of different spots: because we saw the ability and had to get him on the field. I think as much as growing from a freshman to a sophomore, I've also seen him become more specialized in his position and what he's doing. He's continuing to get better."
Question: Does Dupree write "savage" on his wrist every day before practice because that's how he wants to play and is that how the staff wants him to play?
Eliot: "That's something that he's come up on his own. I think that's a self-motivation thing for him. We want Bud to lead by example, a lot like Avery (Williamson) did (last year). That means you have to play that way on the field. Right now, he's doing that."
Question: Can he tell cornerback J.D. Harmon is trying to take advantage of the second chance after being academically ineligible last year?
Eliot: "Yes. I've seen J.D. getting better. I've seen J.D. doing some good things, playing hard and trying to be fundamentally sound. We've just got to stay on him. He's got to continue to put that effort in to do it."
Question: Was there a time last year when Harmon was making plays on the scout team that he wished he could have played him?
Eliot: "I just concentrated on the ones I had on my practice field, I guess. So those thoughts never went through my mind, but I am glad to have him now. He did some good things. I just worried about the ones I had. But he did do some good jobs over there, did do a good job over there with the scout team."
Question: How much has Harmon has bolstered the cornerback position?
Eliot: "He's helped us. We need depth at every position and he's got a chance to come in and play and so it's definitely helped us."
Question: Is Josh Forrest cross-training between linebacker spots?
Eliot: "Basically our mike and our will are kind of mirrored. So we move him around and try him at different spots, but he's played both of them. He's played Mike and Will and, you know, last year he played some Sam as well. But this spring he's been a Mike and a Will. I think it's important to do that at a lot of positions. Sometimes to get depth it means you gotta dual-train people in order to establish that depth. I think that's important not only at linebacker but all our positions."
Question: How are the tackles who did not play last year doing this spring?
Eliot: "Melvin Lewis, I've been pleased with. He's got that girth inside for a good nose guard and he's moved around well. And Regie (Meant), Regie's put on a lot of weight. Regie came in at 260. I think he weighs around 300 now and he's getting better every day. He's a freshman so he's still learning how to play and play at this level. But both those guys, I've been pleased with their progress."