Part seven in an eight part series previewing the 2014 Kentucky football Wildcats.
JD Harmon looks to explain the mysteries of the “interception” to Wildcat secondary.
Fred Tiller 6-0, 170 Jr. Homerville, GA
JD Harmon 6-2, 201 So. Paducah, KY (Tilghman)
Cody Quinn 5-10, 172 Jr. Middletown, OH
Nate Willis 6-0, 168 Sr. Pahokee, FL
Jaleel Hytchye 5-10, 167 So. Cincinnati, OH
Ashley Lowery 6-1, 220 Sr. Cleveland, GA
Marcus McWilson 6-0, 210 So. Youngstown, OH
Zack Blaylock 6-0, 191 So. Marietta, GA
AJ Stamps 6-0, 199 Jr.-JC Vicksburg, MS
Glenn Faulkner 6-2, 195 Jr. East St. Louis, IL
It is nearly here. In only a few short days, it will, at long last, be game week for the Big Blue. By this time next week, Kentucky’s first pregame depth chart will be released. (A weekly ritual that is a Fall version of Christmas morning for college football nerds like myself.) A few days after that, the Cats will take the field at Commonwealth Stadium in year two of the Mark Stoops’ program reconstruction project. Whether the 2014 squad will initiate the new dawn for which Wildcat fans pine will depend in large part on the progress of the position group upon which Stoops built his reputation; the secondary.
The optimistic view:
On a roster in which inexperience is a the general rule, the secondary is comprised largely of veteran players. The depth chart at corner features five players who have started at least one game as a Wildcat. Senior Ashley Lowery is a two year returning starter at one safety position, and highly-regarded junior college transfer AJ Stamps, who enrolled at Kentucky in January and starred in Spring Drills, will start at the other. Only one incoming freshman defensive back, Kendall Randolph, is likely to see game action for the Wildcats. With a full year in Kentucky’s defensive system under their collective belts, this veteran group should show dramatic improvement in year two in Mark Stoops’ defense.
The pessimistic view:
If you want to be a Negative Nellie about the whole thing, you might point out that the returning players, trumpeted above for their experience, were not all that great last year. The Cats finished 11th in the conference in passing defense, last in third down defense, last in passes defended and last in interceptions. In fact, seven players in the SEC recorded more interceptions than the Cats did as a team in 2013. Even more of an indictment of the 2013 secondary, of Kentucky’s lofty team interception total of three, only one lonely pick was made by a defensive back.
The neutral (or as close as I can muster) view:
When it comes to the 2013 Kentucky secondary, the pessimistic view is fairly persuasive. The interception total is not necessarily a huge deal in and of itself. Interception total is a strange, cyclical stat that does not necessarily reflect a secondary’s ability to cover. More damning of the Cats’ efforts last season is the inability to get off of the field on third down. But the sub par effort of the secondary in 2013 does not necessarily predict similar struggles in 2014. Since he began working as a college coach in 1996, Mark Stoops has always coached defensive backs. As defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach at both Arizona and Florida State, these units, and the defenses as a whole, made dramatic improvement in year two of his tutelage. Florida State, for example, moved from 108th nationally in total defense in year one to 42nd in year two. Stoops’ attention to and expertise in this area of the defense should yield similar improvement in Lexington in 2014.
Even though most of the projected starters return, Kentucky has nonetheless improved personnel in the secondary. This begins with safety AJ Stamps. Of all of the positions that the Cats have struggled to fill over the years, safety is among the most glaring. The great defenses around the SEC feature rangy athletic safeties who can both support the run and cover. AJ Stamps may be the first true impact safety Kentucky will field since the days that Melvin Johnson was knocking Chris Doering into an alternate dimension. Stamps recorded 51 tackles, including a sack, 9 pass break-ups and 4 interceptions as a sophomore for junior college national champion East Mississippi in 2013. Kentucky was able to edge out Urban Meyer and Ohio State for his services. Stamps’ presence in the secondary should elevate the play of the rest of the group. Though not listed as a starter, the return of JD Harmon at corner is also a huge addition to the secondary. Harmon, who missed last season over academic issues, earned a starting job as a true freshman walkon out of Paducah in 2012. His two picks that season were more than the secondary mustered in total last season. At 6-2, Harmon gives the corner position a rare combination of size and coverage ability.