HOOVER, Ala. — Mark Stoops is undergoing a philosophy change.
The Kentucky coach employed 4-3 defenses – alignments with four linemen and three linebackers – during his time as a defensive coordinator at Arizona and Florida State.
Last year, the Wildcats used both a 4-3 and a 3-4, which includes three linemen and four linebackers.
Now, UK will move to a 3-4 defense full time this season.
“We’ve always been a 4-3 team,” Stoops said Wednesday at SEC Media Days. “I’ve always had a 4-3 background.
“And really just with the players we had and the versatility and all of the different offenses (Kentucky will face), we really wanted to make that transition to a 3-4. … I think (defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot’s) done a great job of working through that with myself and the rest of the defensive coaches.”
Personnel changes are a big reason for the full shift, Stoops said.
Starting defensive linemen Mike Douglas, Alvin “Bud” Dupree and Za’Darius Smith have all graduated. Senior tackle Melvin Lewis is Kentucky’s only returning starter on the defensive front.
“We’ve just got to continue to bring the other guys along,” Lewis said. “Us older guys have to keep fine-tuning our technique. … You can’t replace (former players), but we’ll be able to fill their spots.”
Lewis, who stands 6-foot-4 and 332 pounds, is listed on the Wildcats’ depth chart as the starter at nose guard. Lewis collected 37 tackles last year but this season will be called upon to clog up the middle of the line, pushing pockets back in opponents’ passing games and steering ball carriers toward his defensive teammates.
“Personally, I enjoy a playing a 3-4 better,” said Lewis, a former transfer from Fullerton (Calif.) College. “Instead of being in a react-attack, you’re in an attack-react sort of mindset. I think it makes things easier for everyone.”
Senior defensive end Farrington Huguenin and sophomore defensive tackle Regie Meant are also listed as defensive line starters.
Another contributor on the line could be sophomore nose guard Matt Elam. The former five-star recruit from Elizabethtown made 10 tackles last season as a freshman.
Lewis has taken on a mentoring role for Elam, Stoops said.
“I think Melvin has been a guy that has really tried to lead and help Matt in that area and give him that extra motivation and be the guy, and that’s what it takes for all of our team,” Stoops said. “We need more and more leaders.”
Lewis is trying be the same role model for Elam that players like Douglas and Smith were for him, he said.
Elam has a unique combination of agility and a 6-7, 360-pound frame and needs to showcase that on the field this year, Lewis said.
“If someone your age is telling you something you know you have to get something done,” Lewis said. “I’m holding him accountable to be able to be an impact this year as well. He’s transitioning well and responding well.”
The four starting linebackers on Kentucky’s depth chart are senior Jabari Johnson and junior Jason Hatcher on the outside and seniors Ryan Flannigan and Josh Forrest at the inside positions.
Forrest was the Cats’ leading tackler one season ago, making 110 stops to go along with eight tackles for loss, a sack, two interceptions and two pass breakups.
Flannigan and another senior inside linebacker, Khalid Henderson, accounted for 57 and 53 tackles respectively last fall.
“I think Josh Forrest has really stepped up,” Stoops said. “Ryan Flannigan is a guy I talked about a lot that showed a lot of flashes and has the talent to do it, and I think now he’s putting it all together.”
Stamps looking for big second year
A.J. Stamps admits he started his 2014 season stronger than he finished it.
The senior safety is entering his second year with the program after transferring from East Mississippi Community College and is looking to build on his first SEC campaign, he said.
“Your first year is your rookie year,” Stamps said. “You’re going to learn some things. When you learn things your first year, you’ve got to go in your second year and improve on them.”
Stamps made a splash early last season, coming up with a one-handed interception in a blowout win over Tennessee-Martin. He also notched key interceptions in conference wins against Vanderbilt and South Carolina.
But the Vicksburg, Miss., native was on the field when UK dropped its final six games of 2014, turning a promising 5-1 start into a 5-7 season that ended without a bowl berth.
Stamps said he’s worked on his leadership skills over the offseason, trying to help his team prevent a similar outcome this year.
“I’m trying to be more vocal than I was last year,” Stamps said. “I wasn’t as vocal as I was supposed to be last year. I was a lead by example guy.
“Now I’m trying to be a more vocal guy, talk to the younger guys and guide them in the right direction.”
Stamps described his spring practice period as “quiet” and said he’s been using that as motivation during summer workouts.
“A.J. was a guy that came in a year ago and was able to make an impact right away,” Stoops said. “And that’s what you expect when you recruit a junior college player.
“He came in, and he did not disappoint. … He’s been a very good leader for us, physical at times. But we expect more and more out of A.J. as he grows as well.”
Youngsters competing at DB
Kentucky brought in some highly touted secondary prospects that Stoops said are trying to earn playing time right away.
Stoops mentioned Chris Westry as “one guy that stands out right now.”
Westry is a 6-4, 185-pound defensive back who was rated a three-star prospect out of Orange Park, Fla. He chose Kentucky over offers from Auburn, Florida and several others.
“He’s a really tall, rangy guy that can run,” Stoops said.
The coach also mentioned newcomers Derrick Baity Jr., Kei Beckham, Will Jackson and Marcus Walker as prospects who could compete for reps in the secondary.
“With all the different schemes and things like that, hey, if you can cover, you can cover,” said Stoops, himself a former DB at Iowa. “There are some nuances, obviously, and experience is important, like we always talk about.
“But if there is one position that if you just need to have the talent and the size, I think (defensive back) is a position you can plug some guys in.”