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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.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
While Vince Marrow got a promotion to recruiting coordinator for his efforts to help Kentucky land a top 20 recruiting class, UK head coach Mark Stoops made it clear Wednesday on national signing day that recruiting was a team effort for the Wildcats.
“Vince has done a great job, everybody knows that, and he has a great ability to connect with these recruits and their families,” Stoops said. “I will say that is a credit to the whole staff. With being from Ohio and myself — I helped Vince out there too. But being from Ohio and having our whole staff actively recruited every one of those (11) guys (who signed).
“So I do give Vince credit. That’s why he got the promotion that he deserved, but it was a staff. It was a group effort. He does a great job. I said that a year ago. I say it again. He’s a joy to go into a home with. He’s got that sewed down. You know, it’s just fun to go in there.
“I will say, again, don’t look at just numbers. Look at some of the things this staff did, and it really amazes me. Coach (D.J.) Eliot pulling in Lloyd Tubman at the 12th hour.
“Neal Brown and John Schlarman — everybody was talking about different guys and their obstacles with recruiting that day when the ice storm hit. They were in Alabama. I think they were in the car for four or five hours and went three miles, and they parked their car and walked the last mile to the school, and then they got locked down in the school for the night. So they slept in the school.”
Then there was the approach that assistant Chad Scott took.
“I go to the home visits and just the connection that he has with the family, and seeing him and them talking about how Chad was in their classes, going to class with them from morning all the way through, just sitting in classes. I think they asked him to get up and do some literature or something, and he said that would be a (NCAA) violation,” Stoops smiled and said.
“But just the connection that they all have. Tommy Mainord going in and pulling guys out of the D.C. area and South Carolina, beating quality schools there. I could go on and on. Coach (Bradley Dale) Peveto, all of them. I don’t want to slight any of them. I just think all of them did an excellent job. You don’t sign a class like this in the situation we’re in without everybody doing their part.”
Marrow, who came to UK from Nebraska to coach tight ends, said selling the UK program was easy.
“This state sales this program. I thought it was basketball, and they are pretty good in basketball, but they love their football here. Lot of parents came down and were very impressed,” Marrow said.
Mainord said taking football recruits to UK home basketball games in Rupp Arena is a huge tool.
“A lot of these guys in this class were at basketball games last February,” Mainord said.
Brown, a Kentucky native, said signing what UK considered the state’s best four players — quarterback Drew Barker and defensive linemen Matt Elam, Lloyd Tubman and Adrian Middleton, was pivotal for future success, too.
“It was a team effort. I think it’s a huge for the success of our program to keep kids that are the best players and best fits for us to keep them home. We felt like the four best players in the commonwealth this year were fits for our program,” Brown said. “It was a great team effort to get those guys.
“It started when Drew came on board. He set the ball rolling. Adrian Middleton is a guy not talked about as much as other people, but he can play. D.J. Eliot is the one that really recruited Lloyd Tubman the last month and developed a relationship with his mother. The big guy, Matt, we had to go in and beat some of the best programs in the country.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
One of the first players scheduled to sign his scholarship papers with the University of Kentucky Wednesday is Florida defensive end Denzil Ware.
Bob Jones, Ware’s principal at Crestview High School, is a former Kentucky football player and has been a mentor for Ware. “This is a big day for him and our school,” said Jones.
The 6-3, 220-pound Ware has had an interesting last 12 months. He left Crestview just before his basketball team was set to play in the district tournament to transfer to a school about 25 miles away in Alabama — and did so not long after his Crestview football coach left for a new job. Ware had been committed to UK, but then de-committed. Word spread he was going to Florida, but he decided to come back to Crestview, re-committed to Kentucky and is now one of the top players in coach Mark Stoops’ recruiting class.
“I am so excited about this,” Ware, a four-star prospect, said. “I am finally getting all the frustration of recruiting out of the way and I am one step closer to my goal (of playing in the NFL). I really like coach Stoops and (defensive coordinator) coach (D.J.) Eliot because they are honest people. They did not sit here and say if you come here you are going to play and start and be the big man on campus. They told me when I come I will have to work hard. Nothing will be easy and I will have to work and earn my spot. By them two telling me that, it meant a lot knowing I would be given a fair shot and could work for what I wanted.
“I do feel like I can help immediately, but every new signee thinks they can do that. I am not going to sit here and say I can. I think I can, but I cannot say I know I will produce as a freshman. But this is so exciting. A lot of people here are excited. A lot of people here probably never did think I would make it this far, but many of them stayed by my side and pushed me to go the next step.”
That includes Jones, who has known Ware since he was the middle school principal when Ware was a sixth-grader.
“He is doing well. We are working hard on academics to make sure he keeps them up,” Jones said. “We are staying on top of him on that. He is on the borderline of qualifying and we can’t let him slip up. His guardian is working hard with him and I meet with his teachers once a week just to monitor how he’s doing. He had a couple of bad grades in the ninth and 10th grades, but he’s taking online courses to get his GPA up and is being tutored for the ACT like all our students are so hopefully next time he can get his test score up to make sure he stays above the (qualifying) line.
“But the rest is all doing good. Coach Stoops was down here recently for a basketball game and coach Eliot was down during the day and we met about an hour and talked about academics and what it would take for him to qualify.”
Ware says he appreciates Jones checking on him academically.
“We can check grades online but knowing somebody is watching my grades that close is really good,” Ware , who has a 95 average in his analytical geometry honors class, said. “It’s tough when classes get hard, but he’s helped me understand that.”
Jones enjoyed getting to know Stoops when he came to watch Ware play basketball.
“He was the hit of the night when he was here,” Jones said. “As soon as people figured out who he was — and the school we played that night doesn’t even play football — everybody was excited. He was very friendly stopping for pictures and autographs. He had a great visit with Denzil after the game.
“It was just a great visit and I was so impressed with coach Stoops. He was so down to earth and friendly. He took Denzil aside after the game and when he got ready to leave, he hugged him and said, ‘I love you man.’ I have never heard a college coach say something like that to a player and I know he meant it.”
Ware, who worked to help try and convince John Hardin defensive tackle Matt Elam to commit to UK before he did last week, is glad to be part of this recruiting class that he believes can change the direction of UK football.
“The recruiting class is probably the best come to Kentucky in history. He (Stoops) is getting big name guys in,” Ware said. “He has had to do some cutting on players there. If you are not a team player, he is going to find you and get rid of you. He is trying to make it a better program and I want to be part of that when it happens.”
Many thought Ware might flip his commitment before signing day even when he re-committed to UK, but he never wavered.
“There was no wavering on his part. I wouldn’t let there be,” Jones said. “I am sure he got phone calls and letters from other schools after he re-committed to Kentucky. But he did not talk or say anything to me about other schools. He never swayed from Kentucky. When he went up for his official visit, he was just blown away and he made such close contacts with those other recruits.”
Ware said Louisville, Vanderbilt, Auburn, Stanford and Florida were the main schools that kept contacting him even when he said there was no doubt he was going to UK.
“Mr. Jones told me to make sure I stayed loyal and if another school came at me to make sure my mind was in the right place,” Ware said. “Some big-name schools kept hollering at me to get me to try and change my mind about where to go but I was good with Kentucky.”
Crestview went 5-5 last season, but won three of its last four games. That included a win over Niceville, which lost the state title game for its only other loss. “That was a big, big win for us,” Jones said. “Denzil was hurt in the middle of the season and missed a couple of games, but he finished strong.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
While his former players at Florida State were climbing to No. 1 this season and getting in position to win a national title, Mark Stoops suffered through a 2-10 season in his first year as Kentucky’s head coach. That’s not exactly what the former Florida State defensive coordinator hoped his initial season at UK would be like.
So what did he learn about himself this year?
“I mean, that’s hard to answer. I think you always grow. You always want to try to grow as a coach and as a person, and I think I’m doing that and I know I am in certain areas and I need to continue to just push,” said Stoops.
“We know this isn’t going to be an easy task and again, we’re going to go to work. We’re hitting the road. We’re going to grind it out in recruiting and our players are going to start lifting and running and we are going to build this program.”
Stoops said there is sense of relief that what he knew could be a difficult year is over.
“I’m disappointed,” Stoops said. “But I know there’s a lot of work to be done (in recruiting). All of our guys need to just continue to develop physically. We have got to get bigger and stronger.
“I know we’re progressing. I know we’re improving. There’s no doubt in my mind. We’re getting better and we need to continue to build this team and, I always accept responsibility. I know I can do better, and the coaches can do better. The players will continue to develop and we’re going to continue to recruit players that can come in and make a difference in this league.”
Stoops said “laying a foundation” is not easy. Yet he redshirted several players, especially linemen, that might have helped him if he had played them. He also has transfers sitting out that he expects to help next season. On top of that, he has a recruiting class currently ranked in the top 10 and one that could stay in the top 20 even after signing day in February.
“We are all disappointed with the 2013 season when it comes to the wins and losses, and I take responsibility for that. And I need to do a better job, and all of us will, and we’ll continue to keep on grinding and keep on pushing this program,” Stoops said. “But I know that we did lay that foundation and guys are ready to get back to work and ready to continue to build.”
Coordinators Neal Brown and D.J. Eliot feel the same way.
“I think we were patchwork at times (on offense). I think we were trying to cover up some things,” Brown said. “The offense we ran week to week is not exactly what I envision us being. I did think this — and I’ll say this about the kids we have right now: the results weren’t what we wanted but our kids did play hard. We didn’t have an effort issue at all this year.
“We’re real thin at offensive line. We’re real thin and those guys are banged up and it showed. And then we need playmakers. We need more guys that can make plays in space.”
Eliot said the defense might need to turn to the junior college ranks for help next season.
“We’ve always recruited junior-college players and have had some success with some at Florida State, and we’re going to continue to do that,” Eliot said. “We have to just grow. We tried to do some different things this year and we can grow off that and get better fundamentally in what we do on defense.”
Two Kentucky seniors believe Stoops and his staff will deliver what they have promised in future years.
“We have a great group of young guys. They’ve been making big influences during the games,” defensive tackle Donte Rumph said. “As the season went on, we had a lot more younger guys step up and make big plays in hard times. So you can see the potential there. Just going into the offseason, just knowing that and knowing they have that time to build during the offseason, you know it’s going to be a special year for UK next year.”
“This team will be better. The offense will be better. The defense will be better,” tight end Anthony Kendrick said. “So it is a bittersweet feeling, but I know the turnaround will be much better than this year. It’s a process. And in this process, you face adversity. You face some difficult times. It’s just all about fighting through it.”
What does defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot think of the way end Za’Darius Smith has played this year?
“Za’Darius has done some good things. He’s only been here one season as well and has played well at times and is very sound in the run game,” Eliot said.
“He’s gotten better every week as well. I thought he had a good game on Saturday. He has only played football now for three years total in his entire career cause he played basketball in high school. So, his room for growth for a player that’s going to be a senior is much higher than most players that are going to be a senior.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Just as he did last season, senior middle linebacker Avery Williamson is leading Kentucky in tackles going into Saturday night’s game at Georgia. However, coach Mark Stoops has learned to appreciate Williamson for more than just the plays he makes on the field.
“I wish we had Avery for another year because I think he’s always been just a terrific kid and goes about his business the right way,” said Stoops. “And I think more and more, he’s feeling comfortable and really stepping out more with the leadership role, which we really need, obviously.
“We’re searching for that guy to be able to really take command of the locker room, and I think he’s that guy that’s moving closer and closer to that, and I think it’s very important at this late stage of the season to hold it together and to keep everybody moving in the right direction.”
Stoops has a good relationship with Williamson, who came in Sunday to watch film and “hang out” a bit with the head coach.
“I think you can just tell it’s very important to him. It’s gonna hurt. The more you invest, the more it hurts,” Stoops said. “So I think the more and more players that invest an awful lot into the preparation and into the game plan and into the game, it should hurt more.”
Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot, who coaches the linebackers, is a Williamson fan, too.
“He’s been fantastic. He’s just such a good person, not only a good player. He’s passionate about the game and he does things right off the field, and no matter what happens, he always leads, he always stays positive, doesn’t point fingers,” Eliot said. “He leads by example, comes to work every day and tries to win the next game.”
Eliot joked that Williamson has probably taken “99.9” percent of the snaps at middle linebacker this season and that he didn’t even come out when he hurt his wrist.
“I think the only time he’s come out has been the games that we got up. That’s the only time he’s come out of the game,” Eliot said.
Of course, that could present major problems for UK next year when Williamson is gone.
“When you lose a good senior, sometimes it’s hard to fill that spot. But somebody will step up. Somebody will not only be a good player for us in that role but will be a good leader somewhere on the defense,” Eliot said. “It’s always going to happen, and I know it will on this team, too.”
It did when Wesley Woodyard left and Danny Trevathan emerged. Then Trevathan left and Williamson became the defensive leader.
“We do practice every day,” Eliot joked. “So we’re getting guys ready in that spot. But game rep-wise, there’s not anybody that has that many Mike (middle linebacker) reps. There’s guys that have plenty of reps at linebacker for us, but not that many that have many Mike reps in games. We’re going to get through offseason and get through recruiting and get into spring ball and we’ll get things ironed out then.”
Eliot says other linebackers have improved this season, but there is only one Williamson.
“Khalid (Henderson) has gotten better. TraVaughn (Paschal) had a great game a couple games ago against Missouri and Josh Forrest had a good game, I think, this last week as well,” Eliot said. “ But Avery is the best. Avery’s been the best backer since I’ve been here and he still is.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
What does Kentucky coach Mark Stoops think of the growth curve for D.J. Eliot in his first year as UK’s defensive coordinator?
“Really starting to feel very comfortable with everything that he’s doing. He’s always had the smarts for it and knows what I want, and we’ve worked together with everything,” Stoops said. “He’s getting to the point now where he’s starting to see all the issues and things that come up, and that’s just experience. That’s why they pay for experience, right?
“We’ve all been torched one way or another in different ways and had some success one way or another, so there’s good and bad in everything. But he’s doing a very good job and working extremely hard, and he’s getting very comfortable with everything.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot went over a variety of topics when he met with the media after Tuesday’s practice.
Question: How well did Bud Dupree play in the loss at Mississippi State? “Bud played fantastic, made a lot of plays in the run game, but also had great pass rush, was there when we needed him and played through pain. You know, he had two things that were ailing him and he just toughed it out and played every single snap and we’re very proud of his efforts.”
Question: How hard is it to develop defensive ends? “There’s a lot of different things that it takes to be a good defensive end, but you’ve got to be an effective pass rusher, but also you’ve got to be effective in all of those quarterback and spread runs games because a lot of those teams pick on the defensive end, try to get them up the field and cut off ‘em and so you’ve got to be able to play both of those types of the game.”
Question: How frustrating was it not getting a third-down stop on Mississippi State’s last possession? “Well, the last one we stopped them and that was very exciting and we gave the ball back at the 45 to the offense and so we were pleased with the efforts on that last ones and the other ones, we had our chances, could’ve made some plays. In hindsight, could’ve called some things different, but that’s always the way you are as a coach, you always look back. Our players were excited to stop them at the end and give us a chance to win.”
Question: Can toughness be taught? “I think that you just emphasize a tough mentality in practice and you don’t accept it when they’re not physical play in practice and in the game you harp on that. So we just continue to celebrate those that play physical and we continue to criticize those that don’t play physical.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot says the Wildcats are “harping on fundamentals” as they come off a bye week preparing to play at Mississippi State Thursday night.”You think a bye week is a chance to get better fundamentally. You’ve got to become efficient tacklers coming off blocks, playing balls in the air. Just harping on fundamentals,” Eliot said Sunday. “I think the attitude’s been good throughout the bye week. We’ve just got to keep pushing them to be the best they can be, and part of that is that attitude.”Eliot said the defense is “significantly healthier” thanks to the bye week.He says Jason Hatcher, Avery Williamson and Blake McClain, who are all playing with some type cast on one hand, are coping better.
“I think they’re getting used to carrying around that extra weight on their hands. It’s getting better. The cast doesn’t change, it’s not going away. But I think they’re getting used to using it,” he said.He also said end Bud Dupree, who missed the Alabama game, has been “practicing every day” and gives the defense a boost.
“Bud’s one of our best players, if not our best player. I think Bud has a huge impact in everything we do on defense,” Eliot said. He also praised McClain, a true freshman defensive back who has played some at linebacker.
“He’s done extremely well for a freshman. He’s very mature, so that helped him. Sometimes you just get a freshman like that, that can handle it. Doesn’t get stressed and is able to perform at a high level early, and he’s been able to do that for us,” Eliot said.He said Mississippi State likes to play fast and “they start fast” most games.”They have an option-type offense from the spread look. Sometimes, the speed of the game is hard to adjust to. You’ve got to come out ready to go knowing that they’re going to have tempo, and we have to be able to adjust,” Eliot said while noting some things are similar to UK’s offense. “They’ve got an up-tempo offense like we do. Some of the Q-run may be a little different than ours. Their quarterback is very athletic, makes a lot of plays on his feet. He makes good decisions, got a strong arm. I think that he makes the thing run. He’s the key to that thing.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot isn’t sure if end Bud Dupree, one of UK’s best defenders, will play against No. 1 Alabama Saturday because of a pectoral injury and freshman end Jason Hatcher also has a cast on his hand after breaking two bones against South Carolina — and continuing to play last week.
“It’s just part of football,” Eliot said. “It’s like that everywhere I’ve been, so we just practice with what we’ve got and make sure we’ve got somebody prepared for the game and then just let her rip.”
Even though UK gave up 35 points to South Carolina, Eliot thought the Wildcats did “some good things” in the second half.
“The kids fought back, never quit. There was plenty we could’ve done better. There were some spots, especially early in the game, that if we had done some things correctly, if we had played the plays properly, we really could have done some better things on defense,” Eliot said.
Here’s more of what he had to say in preparation for playing No. 1 Alabama.
Question: What is the most difficult thing about stopping Alabama’s offense?
Eliot: “Just their physicality. They’re so big and so physical. They can run it right down your throat. They’ve got big linemen, they’ve got big backs. You’ve got to matchup to that, and that’s the toughest thing about the game.”
Question: What makes Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron special?
Eliot: “I think that he is a very, very good quarterback. The reason that he’s good is because he makes great decisions. He understands his offense, he plays within his offense, he has great patience. He doesn’t panic. Therefore he’s tough to stop.”
Question: How has safety Eric Dixon played and what do you say after he misses a key tackle like he did late in the South Carolina loss?
Eliot: “He has done some good things, and we just made the correction on why he missed the play. He should’ve kept his feet, should’ve seen what he hit, wrapped up and run his feet. Eric Dixon has done some good things for us this year, and he’s going to be a guy we need to count on the rest of the season.”
Question: Are the players different after perhaps gaining confidence at South Carolina?
Eliot: “I don’t know. We’ll see. We’re just going to take it one practice at a time and push them to the limit every single day and every single rep, and hopefully they’ll respond the right way.”
Question: Do coaches get inspired to play a No. 1 opponent?
Eliot: “We try to take the approach that the most important game is the next game, so we continue to take that approach. We get fired up for every opponent.”