KSR’s preseason position previews series continues with John Schlarman’s offensive line. Don’t miss earlier previews of the Linebackers, Defensive Line, Tight Ends, Special Teams, Offensive Line, Wide Receivers, Running Backs and Quarterbacks.
Shutdown Corners — For the majority of the last two seasons, cornerbacks Derrick Baity and Chris Westry have shut down opposing wide receivers. Westry burst onto the scene as a playmaking freshman, while Baity blossomed into a physical edge enforcer as a sophomore.
Even though he didn’t miss a tackle last year, Westry’s 2016 season is described by many as a sophomore slump. Excellent in man coverage, he made a few costly mistakes in zone coverage, a priority this offseason. Meanwhile, Baity had three interceptions and 10 pass break ups in 2016.
Now experienced vets, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Kentucky team who had two better corners.
You need to watch the following Westry highlights on mute.
More than One Position — Mark Stoops and Steve Clinkscale employ versatile athletes that will play multiple positions, starting with Mike Edwards. Primarily a strong safety in 2016, this year he’ll play everywhere. The SEC’s second-leading returning tackler (behind Jordan Jones) with 100, the coaches plan on using him more in run support out of the nickel.
When Edwards is playing nickel, senior Kendall Randolph will play strong safety. The two will change positions based on packages. The other athlete in the mix is someone we’ve seen very little of, Jordan Griffin. The intellectual sophomore can play every position in the secondary, and he probably will at some point. The former four-star prospect was one of the coaches’ favorites in the preseason, poised for a breakout year in 2017.
Free Safeties — Two players will be charged to fit the void left by four-year starer Marcus McWilson. Returning from injury, Darius West is known for his physicality, while former cornerback Davonte Robinson’s strength is in pass coverage. The last man standing in the back of the defense, they will split duties, charged with preventing big plays by playing smart, disciplined football.
Rising Newcomers — Of all the areas Stoops has excelled in recruiting, the athletes in the secondary are probably the best. Two true freshmen cornerbacks — Yusuf Corker and Cedrick Dort — made waves in training camp. Highly-touted junior college transfer Lonnie Johnson is still finding his way, but at second in the two-deep, he can still lock down defenders when needed. How they fit in with the talented veterans might be difficult, but as Clinkscale said, “You can never have too many DBs.”
A New Honey Badger — Edwards was second on the team in tackles (100), first in interceptions (3, with 2 in the UofL game), first in pass break ups (8) and deflections (11). To take his game to the next level, he’ll be used all over the field in a variety of ways, something they could not afford to do in 2016.
Edwards will play a role in the returning game. He’ll lock up in man against elite slot receivers. Where his impact might be felt the most is near the line of scrimmage in run defense and blitzing off the edge. The expectations are high for Edwards, but the Kentucky Honey Badger is embracing them with open arms.
Filling in for Lost Vets — The departure of McWilson, Blake McClain and JD Harmon have been grossly under-reported. UK has a ton of talent in the secondary, but replacing experienced, versatile athletes that play multiple positions will not be easy. Jordan Griffin is the perfect player to fill this niche, but consistency is a question that he and others must answer.
Consistency at Free Safety — There are very few concerns for Kentucky’s talented secondary. If there is one, it’s at free safety. A position that requires discipline, there will be two unproven players forced to make important decisions on the fly. The greatest unknown on the defense, if Robinson and West do not bring their A-Game right away, Southern Miss’ big play offense will put up more points than Kentucky fans would care to see.
Kentucky’s pass defense surrendered just 206 passing yards per game in 2016 to rank fifth in the SEC and No. 35 overall. They picked off 13 passes, just three behind the SEC’s leader Alabama. There isn’t a ton of room to go up from 2016, but the Cats have the talent to do it.
After just one pick in 2016, Chris Westry has matured, poised to rise to previously unseen heights. On the other side of the field, my favorite player on the football team, Derrick Baity, will become a household name in the SEC. Along with Mike Edwards, the secondary’s triumvirate of talent can create the SEC’s best pass defense, if the underclassmen can fill in seamlessly.
Jordan Griffin, Davonte Robinson, Darius West and Kendall Randolph are names that won’t receive the headlines, but their ability to play mistake-free football will determine the secondary’s success in 2017. They could make head-scratching mistakes that lead to scores, or become the best pass defense most Kentucky fans have ever seen.