New-look defense progresses through spring

When the UK football program brought in new co-defensive coordinator Rick Minter this offseason to lead a defense that struggled at times last season — especially in conference play — it knew there would be growing pains.

Over the last couple of months in spring practice, the defensive group was presented with its first opportunity to learn Minter’s new schemes and apply them against the offense of UK head coach Joker Phillips and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders.

“The first part of the spring I felt really good,” Phillips said. “After the second scrimmage the guys knew what was going on, what we had put in.

“Then we installed some more packages, and once we installed those packages I don’t think we got a good grasp of the packages we installed in the second part of the spring. And then I thought we lost some of the first part of what we had put in.”

With a defense filled with guys recruited to play in a 4-3 scheme, inexperienced underclassmen and battle-tested veterans alike have found themselves playing in new spots on the field and learning new positions. Safety Winston Guy played in co-defensive coordinator Steve Brown’s scheme for three years at UK, and will now have to learn a new position that brings him closer to the line of scrimmage as a senior.

For linebacker Ronnie Sneed, he too will have to learn a new position that will line him up as a hybrid defensive end in some packages after playing only linebacker under Brown in his first three seasons at UK.

“There’s a lot of pressure on us,” Guy said. “Some people have moved into new roles, such as myself, and there’s just a lot of things that are different.”

Sneed said the adjustment process to any new scheme begins long before anyone steps out onto the field.

“We’re in (the film room) a couple hours every day, at least a couple hours watching film,” Sneed said, “and that’s not even including when we are out on the practice field. We are putting in a lot of hours trying to get this thing perfect.”

Phillips said Minter was prepared to not hold anything back early on when taking over the defense, and that the team hopes any learning curves would work themselves out before play in the fall.

“Everybody has experienced the brain cramps,” Sneed said. “(Minter) has thrown a lot at us, more than we have ever had to learn at one time, but everybody is handling it pretty good for the most part. We’ve still had some guys who have to continue to learn and come up with it, but we are going to continue to learn.”

The consensus from the players and the coaching staff as spring practice nears its ending is that the defense has made strides in learning Minter’s defense, but still has plenty of work to do.

This Saturday’s annual Blue vs. White scrimmage at Commonwealth Stadium will be the defense’s first chance to show what they can do in front of fans in the Big Blue Nation. Sneed has big expectations for his defense come Saturday.

“I expect to kill ‘em,” Sneed said about facing the offense on Saturday. “As long as we all come out and everybody is sharp mentally, we’ll shut them down.”