After previewing the entire offense (quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive line) we are finally wrapping up the defense after touching on the defensive line, edge, and inside linebackers. This year, Mark Stoops and his secondary coaches have a ton to replace. Just how much?
161 starts. 853 tackles. 38 tackles for loss. 4.5 sacks. 24 interceptions. 79 pass break-ups. 8 forced fumbles. 3 blocked kicks.
That’s a lot.
Then you add in the loss of redshirt junior Davonte Robinson for the season before training camp started and there are a lot of unanswered questions entering the fall. After being one of college football’s best secondary units last year, the Wildcats must now try to reload in 2019.
When Mark Stoops was hired, many were excited about what he would bring to the defensive side of the football. For years, the Wildcats had put points on the board, but have struggled to stop people. Under Rich Brooks and Joker Phillips, Kentucky only recorded one top-40 defense (2008) per S&P+. The hope was that Stoops could quickly build on that side of the ball.
It was a slow start for the former Arizona and Florida State defensive coordinator with Kentucky only finishing in the top-60 (2014) once in his first five seasons on campus. That all changed this past season.
Behind the best defensive player in college football and five seniors in the secondary, the Wildcats ranked first in the SEC in scoring defense and finished 15th overall per S&P+. It was a dominant unit for most of the season and the secondary was a big reason why.
After a slow climb that began in 2015 with Derrick Baity, Mike Edwards, and Chris Westry all breaking into starting roles as freshmen, the Wildcats slowly started to improve. Edwards became an All-SEC player and was drafted. Lonnie Johnson, a junior college prospect, rode a strong senior season into a draft selection. Both Derrick Baity and Chris Westry seem set to make rosters for the Cowboys and Texans. This isn’t even including Darius West who collected 171 tackles and four interceptions the last two seasons.
Mark Stoops, Steve Clinkscale, and Dean Hood have proven they can build a good secondary when give the right pieces and time. Now Kentucky must start the rebuild with six former high three-star/four-star recruits and two junior college transfers.
The Secondary Room
At Kentucky, the Wildcats split up the secondary between two position coaches. Steve Clinkscale handles the corners while former Wake Forest defensive coordinator and Eastern Kentucky head coach Dean Hood guides the safeties. Both have their hands full this season, but there is one very important upperclassmen.
Jordan Griffin is entering senior season and the former high three-star recruit, per the 247 Sports composite, needs to be good for Kentucky this season. The defensive back has moved all over the secondary, but appears set to have one of the starting safety spots locked up in 2019. The Atlanta area native has made one career start, has played in 33 games, and has 41 tackles with one career interception. Those numbers have to improve this season.
Next to Griffin at safety figures to be either Tyrell Ajian or Yusuf Corker. Both are former blue-chip recruits and Ajian played in all 13 games last season while being the sixth defensive back used in UK’s dime packages. Corker, meanwhile, also played in all 13 games but mainly in a special teams role. Kentucky needs one to emerge and take control of that starting spot. True freshman Moses Douglass also figures to factor into this battle.
Now it’s time to switch to corner where Kentucky has zero experience returning. At the defense’s boundary corner spot, redshirt sophomore Cedrick Dort, Jr. is the expected starter. The South Florida native was redshirted due to a high ankle sprain injury last season after playing in nine games as a true freshman. At just 5-foot-11, Dort will be giving up some size at the position but was a physical and solid tackler coming out of high school.
At the field corner spot, junior college transfer Brandin Echols was the heavy favorite to start at this spot after recording six interceptions and 12 pass break-ups at Northwest Mississippi Community College last fall. However, he’s been hampered in fall camp by a hamstring injury. That has meant two freshmen being thrown into the fire.
Redshirt freshman Jamari Brown figured to be the next guy up at this spot, but one of the stars at camp appears to be true freshman M.J. Devonshire. The high three-star recruit has been lauded by Vince Marrow and could be the day one starter if Brandin Echols isn’t able to run with the ones during game prep. The Aliquippa, Pennsylvania native had eight interceptions as a senior in high school in addition to being an explosive playmaker on offense. Don’t be surprised if he’s the team’s starting kick returner.
At nickel, UK lost Mike Edwards to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and that won’t be an easy spot to fill. The slot corner is essentially a starter for the defense and the staff asks this position to do a lot. The defensive back must constantly guard slot receivers in man coverage in addition to being an effective blitzer and run defender in the box. At this point, we really don’t know what UK will do here. It will likely be a spot where they try to get either Tyrell Ajian, Yusuf Corker, or junior college transfer Quandre Mosely on the field. Brandin Echols’ man coverage ability could be effective there. M.J. Devonshire could be plugged in to get the best 11 on the field. We likely won’t know who it will be until the defense takes the field against Toledo’s spread offense.
Kentucky was gutted in the secondary following last season and the unexpected loss of Davonte Robinson was a huge blow to this position group. Now the Wildcats are heavily dependent on junior college transfers, a handful of underclassmen, and a senior who has been a reserve for three seasons. There are a ton of unanswered questions.
At corner, Cedrick Dort, Jr. has one spot locked down but is giving up a lot of size at the position. Kentucky has had large boundary corners the last four seasons and only time will tell if Dort can hold up. We are not sure who will be the backup there. On the other side, Brandin Echols is the best cover man on the team, but a hamstring injury has hampered his progress. That could mean Kentucky could be starting a freshman at corner for the first time since 2015.
At safety, it is essential for the Wildcats to get really good play from senior Jordan Griffin. He is by far the most experienced player in the back end and must be a rock for the young players surrounding him. Next to Griffin will be three former blue-chippers and UK should feel good about at least one of them becoming a very solid contributor in 2019. Quandre Mosely figures to be a wild card and the staff appears to be determined to find him a role this season.
At nickel, your guess is as good as mine. Hopefully we will get some type of answer on Monday when UK’s first depth chart of the season is released. Mark Stoops is going to have to show off those secondary coaching chops this fall.