Part seven in an eight part series previewing the 2013 Kentucky Football Wildcats.
Junior safety Ashely Lowery with an interception against Vanderbilt in 2012.
Division One college athletes are competitive people by definition, and competitive people strive to prove themselves by facing the very best in their chosen craft. If these propositions are accurate, there should be no position group on any football team in the country more excited about the upcoming season than the Kentucky Wildcat secondary. Not only do the Cats face arguably the toughest schedule in the nation this Fall, but they also face a collection of opposing quarterbacks that might be mistaken for a 2014 NFL Draft primer. Kentucky will contend with three quarterbacks, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, Alabama’s AJ McCarron and Georgia’s Aaron Murray, who are projected to be first round NFL draft picks. These three future pros combined to pass for over 10,500 yards and 93 touchdowns in 2012. In addition to these three high end talents, Kentucky also faces veteran quarterbacks such as Florida’s Jeff Driskell, South Carolina’s Connor Shaw and Mississippi State’s Tyler Russell, all excellent signal callers in their own right. In short, Kentucky’s secondary will have its collective hands full in limiting the exploits of several explosive passing attacks in 2013.
From the time Mark Stoops entered the coaching profession at the high school level in 1992, he has coached defensive backs. Certainly, his knowledge of that position and pride in how it should be played will influence the Cats’ defensive backs in a positive way. For evidence, look no further than how the defenses he coached at Arizona and Florida State were transformed under his tutelage. But with Kentucky’s current level of talent and lack of depth at these important positions, will coaching be enough against such stout competition?
POST-SPRING DEPTH CHART:
Cody Quinn 5-10, 170 So., Middletown, OH
Eric Simmons 6-0, 203 Jr., Atlanta, GA
Cantrell McKinley 6-0, 203 Jr.JC, Texarkana, TX (walk-on)
Cody Lewis 6-0, 180 Fr.RS, Alcoa, TN (walk-on)
Rodney Cox 6-0, 180 So., Louisville, KY (duPont Manual) (walk-on)
Fred Tiller 6-0, 171 So., Homerville, GA
Jerry Williams 6-0, 168 So., Lexington, KY (Henry Clay) (walk-on)
RJ Williams 6-0, 190 Jr.JC, Clifton Park, NY (walk-on)
Ashely Lowery 6-1, 211 Jr., Cleveland, GA
Glenn Faulkner 6-2, 193 So., East St. Louis, Ill
Dakotah Tyler 5-11, 207 Sr., Indianapolis, IN
Erico Smith 5-11, 197 So., Fisherville, KY (Spencer County) (walk-on)
Daron Blaylock 6-1, 214 So., Marietta, GA
Eric Dixon 5-11, 187 Jr., Mobile, AL
Zach Blaylock 6-0, 192 So., Marietta, GA
Josh Harris 6-0, 193 Fr.RS, Maysville, KY (Mason County)
STRENGTHS (AND A MIRACLE THROWN IN FOR GOOD MEASURE):
Aftermath of Lowery’s May 4th wreck
On Derby Day of this year, Kentucky junior safety Ashely Lowery was involved in a devastating car crash in his home-state of Georgia in which he was thrown more than 100 feet from his Nissan Altima. In hearing that account, and looking at the crumpled and burned pile of metal that was at some point allegedly a functional car, it is absolutely astounding that Lowery survived. Amazingly, he not only survived, but has been medically cleared to resume all football activities, and appears to have reclaimed his starting safety position. From a football perspective, this is a much-needed boost. Lowery was singled out by coaches as the bright spot of the secondary throughout Spring Practice. In a young secondary, Lowery is a veteran presence, having played in 20 career games, including nine starts. From a strictly human perspective, the Kentucky team and fan base is simply happy that sometimes miracles happen, even to Kentucky football.
In the category of looking on the bright side, Kentucky’s injury woes in the defensive backfield in 2012 have become a blessing in disguise for the 2013 Cats. Due to multiple injuries in the secondary last season, true freshmen cornerbacks Cody Quinn and Fred Tiller were thrown into the mix early and often. Though both took their lumps at times, they gained valuable experience, each playing in eleven games. Both have good speed, and now have the advantage of a complete year of college strength and nutrition, as well as the benefit of Mark Stoops’ years of experience in coaching defensive football. Similarly, sophomore safety Daron Blaylock was thrust into action during his freshman year as well. He has used that experience to move atop the depth chart at one safety spot opposite Ashely Lowery. Look for all three of these players to make major strides in their sophomore seasons.
With players like Lowery, Blaylock and Marcus McWilson (discussed below), Kentucky has good size at the safety position. All three of these players weigh 210 pounds or more, and more closely resemble those physical safeties who stalk the defensive backfields of the elite SEC programs. This physical presence should strengthen Kentucky’s run defense.
Kentucky is extremely young and thin at the corner position, returning only three scholarship corners from 2012. Of those three, only Quinn and Tiller have ever played meaningful minutes. With the addition of freshman Jaleel Hytche and junior college transfer Nate Willis, Kentucky likely has four players that coaches will feel comfortable putting into action, and two of those players have never played a down of major college football. Any injury at the corner position could be devastating.
One reason for the lack of depth at corner is the unfortunate loss of sophomore JD Harmon. Harmon arrived in Lexington in 2012 as a walk-on, but quickly made an impact. Harmon played in all 12 games as a true freshman in 2012, making three starts. He led the Wildcats in interceptions with two. Unfortunately, it was announced on Media Day that Harmon would not be with the team this Fall, presumably for academic reasons. Harmon would have certainly played, and perhaps battled for a starting spot. With his size (6-2, 195), and ability to make plays on the ball, his talents will be sorely missed in the Wildcat secondary.
I hope that you enjoyed the thorough depth chart provided above. Now kindly disregard it entirely. As with many spots on the Kentucky roster, the defensive secondary is a young man’s game. There are four rookie defensive backs on the 2013 Fall Roster. At this point, it seems almost a given that all four will earn a spot in the two deep by the time the Cats kick it off against Western later this month. Jaleel Hytche, a burner from Cincinnati who pledged to UK over offers from Penn State, Tennessee and Vanderbilt among others, is currently the third corner behind sophomores Quinn and Tiller. Nate Willis, who relieved anxious Wildcat fans on Monday by announcing his long-awaited eligibility via Twitter, was regarded as the number three junior college corner in the nation by 247 Sports.com in 2012. Willis should arrive at Kentucky to begin practice later this week. Even with an abbreviated camp, his talent, combined with the frightening lack of depth at the position, almost ensures that he will see the field immediately.
The 2012 class will also provide an infusion of young talent to the safety position. Mark Stoops and Vince Marrow plucked four star talent Marcus McWilson from their Alma Mater, Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown, Ohio. McWilson is a versatile athlete with good speed, and a solid 210 pound frame that allows him to play with great physicality. Coaches will utilize that combination of speed and size by playing McWilson as the fifth defensive back when lining up in the nickel formation. This scheme allows McWilson to use his speed to cover slot receivers while moving him close to the line of scrimmage to defend against the run. Facing the passing attacks that will be thrown at the Cats during the daunting 2013 schedule, the nickel, and therefore McWilson, will be utilized frequently. Freshman safety Blake McClain did not receive the high school accolades of Hytche or McWilson, but has apparently shown enough to the coaches in camp to work his way into the two deep at safety, ahead of returning veterans such as former four star recruit Glenn Faulkner and senior Dakotah Tyler.