by Kevin W. Faris
Before discussing the latest development in Operation: Win, a 37-34 loss by the University of Kentucky to the Auburn Tigers Saturday night, let’s be clear what we will not be discussing: UK quarterback Mike Hartline. As a promising 3-0 start has turned into a 3-3 record, a lot of fans still want to argue about Hartline. Believe me, I was one of them, but the truth is that Hartline is not the problem. I’m not a big Hartline supporter, but I view him in the same way I view Congressman Ben Chandler. I don’t really like him, he hasn’t done a lot to cheer about, but at this point he’s the best option. The problem for UK lies on the defensive side of the ball and until Hartline starts at safety, UK fans should focus their ire elsewhere.
These numbers are why, as the Tigers took the field with over seven minutes on the clock in a tie ballgame and starting at their own seven yard line, I was filled with little confidence. True, the UK defense had until that point held the Tigers to only a field goal after giving up 31 points in the first half, but this is the same defensive coordinator who has not been able to stop a mobile quarterback during his entire stint at UK. It was brutal to watch the Tigers slowly and methodically march down the field. There were 19 plays with no gain longer than 11 yards. At a time when the UK defense needed something, anything, to happen, they could not get it done. needed a stop. They needed a turnover, and while they came close on Terrell Zachery’s fumble, they fell short. After the game, Brown commented on the turnover, “We needed a break like that.”The statement is true, but if you needed a break like that, then why not aggressively try to create it?
Brown’s tenure as a defensive coordinator has not been terrible, but it also has not been great. At best, his defenses were above average and at worst they have been…well the worst. At least in the SEC.
When Joker Phillips took over for Rich Brooks, I was curious how he was going to be as a head coach. These opportunities do not come around too often, especially in the SEC, and unlike a lot of African-American coaches who take over putrid programs, Phillips was walking into a position of taking over a team that has been to four straight bowl games. The temptation to simply maintain the status quo had to be weighed against the opportunity to run the team his way. The ouster of three coaches showed that Phillips was going to do this his way, but Brown was not one of those coaches let go, to the surprise of more than a few fans. I still don’t know if Joker is going to be a good, bad, or even great head coach, but I feel like he knows that this is his shot. Being a UK alum will only buy you a year or two longer than a non-alum and if Operation: Win is going to be successful, then they need to, you know, win. And to do that, it may be time for Steve Brown to go.
Fans like to focus on the offense, because it is a lot easier to understand. Run, pass, score touchdowns. It’s easy to measure success and understand why or why not a coach calls certain plays. Defense is a little different, in that so much of it is a direct response to the offense. Brown’s biggest issue, and be warned, this is coming from someone not exactly schooled in the Xs and Os, is that the defense is bland and safe. Imagine if the offense only had four offensive plays. Imagine how frustrated you would get watching them run the same four offensive plays over and over. That’s how I feel when I watch the defense. They play cautious, trying to avoid giving up the big play, but content to give up small gain after small gain in hopes of an offensive error. The reason it took Auburn 19 plays is because UK gave them 19 plays. No aggression. No risk and no reward. Safe and vanilla.
What UK needs in a defensive coordinator is what they once sought in an offensive coordinator. Creativity. Hal Mumme was hired at UK because the administration felt that in order to compete with teams more talented, UK needed to be creative. It did not work for a variety of reasons (wrong choice in coach, a ton of cheating) but the idea was the right one. UK’s recruiting is improving, but still in the bottom 1/3 of the SEC. UK relies on diamonds in the rough, like linebacker Danny Trevathan, and coaching 2/3 stars to play like 4/5 stars. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. UK needs to tilt the field to their advantage. They have the offense to overcome giving up a big play, but the offense needs to be on the field for this to happen and when the defense is allowing 19 play drives, it can’t happen.
Keep this all in mind this week as the call-in shows and the message boards debate the strength of Mike Hartline’s arm. If every other defender besides Trevathan did their job as well as Hartline does his, then UK would be 6-0.
Read Part 2 of this week's coverstory by Tread, here.
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