After previewing the entire offense (quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight ends, offensive line) we now finish the defensive side of the football after covering defensive line and linebackers.
UK’s secondary enters 2018 with some very high expectations. Derrick Baity, Mike Edwards, and Chris Westry enter their senior seasons as multi-year starters who have filled heavy roles since their rookie season in 2015. They’ll be joined by fellow seniors Lonnie Johnson and Darius West to fill out the rotation. Add in former high level recruits such as Jordan Griffin and Davonte Robinson and expectations are understandably high for this group.
It all begins and ends with Mike Edwards who has been a rock for a defense that has had their fair share of struggles in recent memory. The Cincinnati native broke into the starting lineup late in his redshirt freshman season and hasn’t looked back after collecting 235 career tackles to go along with eight career interceptions. In addition to his role at safety, Edwards has become this team’s nickelback and he’s one of the nation’s best slot coverage guys shown by his 15 pass break-ups in the last two seasons. Edwards gets everything out of his six-foot, 200-pound frame, is Kentucky’s most valuable defensive player, and will hear his name called in the next NFL Draft.
It just doesn’t stop with the man they call Badger, however, as cornerback Derrick Baity enters his senior season as the best corner to play at UK since Trevard Lindley. Much like Edwards, Baity stepped into the starting eleven late in his freshman season and hasn’t given up his spot as UK’s field corner since. Baity is often charged with taking on the best opposing receiver and he’s more than held his own with 18 career pass break-ups and five career interceptions. The Tampa native has great size for a corner and a solid senior season will have scouts drooling. He will be the third player off this defense to hear his named called in the NFL Draft.
Baity and Edwards are the stars but there is plenty other talent in the room. At safety, Darius West is back for his senior season after recording 85 tackles in his first year as a full-time starter. Chris Westry bursted onto the scene as a true freshman as he received All-SEC Freshman Team honors. Since then his play has tailed off, but the Florida native has been consistent starter. Last year, junior college transfer Lonnie Johnson stepped in and took away Westry’s starting spot halfway through the season at boundary corner. For the year, the Gary, Indiana native recorded 41 tackles and two blocked kicks.
It’s safe to say that UK is very senior heavy in the secondary this year so it will be important to get some younger players some reps. Jordan Griffin enters his junior season with 28 career tackles and he will man a safety spot when Edwards moves closer to the line of scrimmage to play nickel. Davonte Robinson played sparingly as a redshirt freshman and he is in a heated battle with redshirt freshman Yusuf Corker for who will be West’s primary backup at safety. Tyrell Ajian was a big recruiting win in the class of 2017 and the redshirt freshman has the ability to play both safety and nickel. In the most recent recruiting haul, UK went all out on corner pulling in junior college transfer Domonique Williams and rangy Florida corners Jamari Brown and Stanley Garner.
On paper, this secondary enters the season with a ton of experience and NFL talent. With the background Mark Stoops has a defensive back guru, you have to think that the ceiling is very high for this group.
However, there is no question that this unit took a step back in 2017. Opponents completed over 64% of their passes, averaged nearly eight yards per pass attempt, and threw for 21 touchdowns. That is just not going to cut it for a group that has the ability to be one of the finer secondaries in the SEC. It appears that Stoops realized this and made a staff change to fix some mistakes. Special teams coordinator Dean Hood will now manage the safeties while Steve Clinkscale will just be coaching the corners. Now with three coaches having defensive back play as an expertise, this unit must be a strength.
UK is going to need improved corner play and that could start with Lonnie Johnson winning the full-time gig at boundary corner. That move would allow UK to get creative and maybe play Chris Westry at safety. Kentucky will need Darius West to improve in pass coverage and for Jordan Griffin to be very steady as Mike Edwards is going to play the majority of snaps at nickel. UK will need its freshman and redshirt freshman class full of former high three and four-star prospects to start playing to their potential. It is very likely that Jamari Brown or Stanley Garner will have to play a big role this fall.
With the talent and production on the roster, expectations need to be high for this group. Kentucky must play up to its potential in the back half. If it doesn’t, that could mean a world of problems for a defense that is about to see plenty of quarterbacks that can slice up just about any average secondary.