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Notebook: Warm-up adjustments key UK defense's success

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UK defenders converge on a Miami ball-carrier. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK defenders converge on a Miami ball-carrier. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It's not every day that a team implements an entirely new defensive game plan just minutes before kickoff and holds its opponents to no offensive touchdowns and just 122 total yards. Such was the case in Kentucky's 41-7 win over Miami (Ohio) on Saturday.

Given the Wildcats' success on the defensive side of the ball during the game, it came as a surprise when Mark Stoops revealed he and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot more or less scrapped their game plan in pregame warm-ups.

Stoops and the UK staff had prepared all week for Miami's read-option offensive scheme where the majority of plays come with the quarterback starting in shotgun or pistol formations and reading pass or run only after the snap.

While watching Miami practice some formations on the field before the game however, Stoops realized Miami would feature plenty of offensive looks the UK staff hadn't seen on game tape.

The UK head coach was correct, and his intuition went a long way toward making his first victory as a head coach so convincing.  Stoops' experience facing a similar offensive scheme also came in handy on Saturday.

"They've been running the gun-read stuff that we were preparing for all week, and they went to the double-slot option stuff," Stoops said. "They didn't do much teamwork in pregame warm-up, which was odd, but they did do some handoffs and exchanges. We saw their alignments on some things.

"(We) came in here (the locker room), went over the double-slot option. Fortunately Coach (D.J.) Eliot and myself prepared for that in the ACC Championship game. We had some basic rules we applied quickly."

Stoops and his defensive coordinator game-planned for Paul Johnson's triple-option offense at Georgia Tech in their final game at Florida State, their previous coaching stop. They implemented the lessons learned to great effect against Miami.

Even with the spot-on adjustments, the UK players still had to execute. A task easier said than done given how complex Miami's option-heavy offense is.  

"That offense is so unique," Eliot said. "That's the offense that Georgia Tech runs and Georgia Southern runs. It's that double-slot option. One thing that defensive coaches complain about is within a week you don't have enough time to prepare for it. We had minutes. So I've never done that before."

Eliot was pleased with how well his players dealt with the large-scale adjustments on short notice.

"Hats off to 'em," Eliot said. "They did exactly what we asked and they didn't fret. When we told them, 'Listen guys, what we've been practicing, that's not what we're going to do, OK? This is what we're going to do.' We told them minutes before they went out there, they went out there, they played and they executed."

Brown mastering quarterback rotation

Some doubted whether Kentucky would really return the Air Raid offense to Commonwealth Stadium following last week's performance, but the sirens were on full blast after each of UK's three passing touchdowns Saturday.

Maxwell Smith started the game for UK behind center, but just six plays into an opening drive where UK had moved the ball 38 yards, Jalen Whitlow entered and capped the possession with a touchdown run.

Both played well throughout the game as each passed for over 100 yards. Smith completed 15-of-23 for 310 yards and all three scores and Whitlow 10 of 12 for 103.

"There was not a lot of scientific reasoning going in between when I was rolling them in and when I was rolling them out," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "I pretty much went on gut instinct on that and that's probably the way it'll be for a while. I thought Max did some really good things. He left a lot of throws out there. He'll tell you that. He'll probably be the first one to tell you. Jalen did some things. He threw the ball today like he threw the ball in camp."

UK continued to rotate the signal-callers fluidly throughout the game, but most frequently during the first few drives of the opening quarter. The quarterback carousel, seldom executed with so much turnover as effectively as it was on Saturday, helped UK to a school-record 24-point first quarter with 279 yards of total offense.

The constant quarterback subbing reached its height on UK's second drive of the game, which went 10 plays and 69 yards with five quarterback substitutions.

Brown rotated his quarterbacks so often during the first quarter on Saturday that Maxwell Smith had to answer questions about his fitness because he was forced to run from the huddle to the sideline so often.

"It's obviously something I've never done before, but I'm doing it," Smith said of rotating in and out of the game. "We won the game and we played pretty well so just keep doing it, right?"

Brown has been saying for weeks that both Smith and Whitlow would see action for the foreseeable future, but few could have imagined just how often the two would relieve one another.

If nothing else, the Big Blue Nation is seeing why the staff has found it so difficult to commit to a set number of snaps for either player.

"They've both done some things really well through camp and through the spring and then other times they've struggled," Brown said. "And some of those struggles are their fault. Some of them are my fault. It's frustrating at times, but they're young. Each of them has started eight games now, right? And some of those games they didn't have a chance. So it's encouraging that both of them did well. We're going to continue to play both."

Stoops' youngest troops shine bright

A number of the youngest Wildcats made up some of UK's biggest plays on Saturday.

In all, 437 of UK's 675 yards from scrimmage came from players recruited by Stoops' first-year staff. The young receivers were especially effective as 298 of UK's 413 yards passing were hauled in by five of UK's newcomer receivers: Javess Blue, Ryan Timmons, Alex Montgomery, Jeff Badet and (tight end) Steven Borden.

"That's impressive, especially for young kids," Brown said of his receiving corps. "We're going to lean on them. We have to get guys that we feel like are playmakers with the ball. And we lost one of our playmakers the first play of the game, Demarco (Robinson, to an ankle injury of yet-unknown severity). We shuffled those receivers around and it was real positive to see Javess Blue, Jeff Badet make plays. I think Jojo (Kemp) was our leading rusher."

Despite multiple breakout performances, one game isn't good enough to impress Brown. The UK play-caller is looking for consistency now.

"It's encouraging," Brown said, clearly aware of the brutal four game stretch UK now faces beginning with No. 8 Louisville. "Now obviously - no offense to Miami (Ohio) - our deal gets a little tougher after this."

Return game leaves room for improvement

Despite the impressive score line, the Wildcats have plenty to work on in the coming days of practice. Without a doubt, UK struggled in the punt return game.

First-string punt and kickoff returner Robinson took the opening kickoff back 39 yards, but seemed to hurt his foot on the play and he did not return to the game.

In his absence, the UK punt returners struggled. Daryl Collins dropped a punt that he fielded inside the UK 10-yard line. The ball was recovered by Miami and returned for the RedHawks' lone points and the struggles didn't stop there.

Javess Blue also made attempts to catch balls inside his own 10, a major no-no in Bradley Dale Peveto's mostly lenient return system.

"There are some simple rules that are applied that most people in college football know," Stoops said. "That you don't back up behind the 10 and catch it, secure the football on a punt safe.

"We made some plays that we're not very proud of. That's what we got to constantly do. We need to be a smart team. I thought we played harder tonight and we need to continue to be more disciplined and play smart."

Despite the struggles, the mistakes were made by young players. It's something Peveto will use in his coaching during the lead up to next week's Louisville game.

"We have to be better in the punt return game," Peveto said. "A couple of the young guys have to come on and get better with ball security. We have to be smarter on the field. I have to do a better job of coaching that. We'll get that fixed with some work on that this week.

"When you're in the bright lights of the Southeastern Conference and (punt returning) is new for you that is a tough situation to be in all of the sudden. We got our feet wet tonight with a couple of young guys and they will work at it and be better."

Game-week prep changes pay off

UK faces one of the nation's top teams next Saturday, and the matchup also happens to be a huge rivalry game.

The Wildcats proved they have the ability to make adjustments on the fly and bounce back with their performance on Saturday, but next week's matchup poses challenges they've yet to experience in the first two weeks of the season.

Stoops made changes in the buildup to the Miami game as opposed to the season opener. He was happy with the improvements in game-week preparation this past few days, but the next few could make the difference going forward.

"I believe I mentioned this a time or two after practice, but I felt like we were more poised this week," Stoops said. "Still focused, but more poised ... It's one play at a time. That gets so boring to hear. We need to improve and focus and do the best we can on every play. That's what we talked about, just trying to be perfect at one play, then stack another one, then get another one."

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