The Kentucky Wildcats gradually improved on defense last season, and things could get even better in 2014.
Kentucky had played a 3-4 defense under former head coach Joker Phillips, but transitioned to a 4-3 last season with the hiring of new head coach Mark Stoops. The 4-3 seemed to fit the Wildcats’ personnel more than the 3-4, especially with Kentucky’s two standout defensive ends, Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith.
Both Dupree and Smith returned this season after deciding not to enter the NFL Draft. In 2013, Dupree was second on the team with 61 total tackles, including 9.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks and two forced fumbles. Dupree seemed to be a natural at defensive end, after being somewhat of a hybrid in the 3-4.
Smith, a junior college transfer, also made a significant impact on defense last season. Smith was third on the team with 59 total tackles, including 6.5 tackles for loss, six sacks and a fumble recovery.
The return of these two players is a boost to Stoops and the Kentucky defense. The defensive line will be the top unit on Kentucky’s 2014 defense, and Stoops hopes that his line can make enough plays to keep pressure off of an inexperienced group of linebackers.
Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot will have to replace some interior linemen, but Christian Coleman, C.J. Johnson and Reggie Meant appear to be capable players.
With Dupree and Smith up front, Kentucky’s defensive ends should rival those of just about any other team in the Southeastern Conference. It’s up to the rest of the defense to improve.
Tim Letcher is a contributing writer for RantSports.com and a member of the Football Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter @TimLetcher , on Facebook or add him to your network on Google.