Going into the 2019 Kentucky football season, the roster seemed to be complete across the board. At quarterback, Terry Wilson was returning to lead the offense, with Lynn Bowden, AJ Rose, Justin Rigg, Josh Ali expected to serve as the go-to playmakers at the skill positions. As we’ve seen year after year under John Schlarman, the offensive line unit was also seen as an obvious strength.
Defensively, Josh Allen’s departure obviously hurt the pass rush, but players such as Boogie Watson, Josh Paschal, DeAndre Square, Kash Daniel, Chris Oats, Quinton Bohanna, and TJ Carter made up a deep and talented front seven.
If there was one position group of concern, though, it was – without question – the secondary. The coaching staff said as much throughout the offseason and going into fall camp.
And it was a reasonable concern.
Last season, the Wildcat secondary allowed just 186.31 passing yards per contest, 14 touchdowns through the air, and just 6.44 yards per attempt. In 13 games, UK also picked off nine total passes and broke up 55 of them.
Individually, Darius West and Mike Edwards served as a two-headed monster at the safety positions. West finished the year with 86 total tackles, three interceptions, six pass breakups, and one fumble recovery, while Edwards closed out his impressive Kentucky career with 82 total tackles, nine tackles for loss, two interceptions, six pass breakups, one QB hit, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery.
At the corner position, Derrick Baity, Lonnie Johnson, and Chris Westry combined for 82 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, one sack, two interceptions, 13 pass breakups, and two forced fumbles.
As for the backups, Davonte Robinson managed 42 total tackles (3 TFL), four pass breakups, and two fumble recoveries, while Jordan Griffin had 13 tackles and three pass breakups, Tyrell Ajian finished with 10 total tackles, three pass breakups, and one interception, and Yusuf Corker managed eight tackles.
From top to bottom, it was an impressive secondary unit, one that saw two players drafted in the first three rounds of the 2019 NFL Draft.
With Johnson, Edwards, Baity, West, and Westry all gone, replacing the entire starting secondary was a tough blow.
Factor in Davonte Robinson – Kentucky’s most experienced returning defensive back – suffering a season-ending right quadriceps injury in July, the outlook was bleak, to say the least.
“It’s one of those positions, let’s face it, experience is important at all those positions, right? Everywhere, every sport, experience is important,” Stoops said at UK Media Day back in August. “I think certain positions you have to have experience and instinct. I think [secondary] is one of those [units]. You’re talking about Davonte. For us, he was able to play nickel, strong, free, dime, any of the inside positions that really helps us because he understands all the nuances just from playing the other side. For instance, if he had to go to the dime, he knows what the nickel does, opposite. Strong safety, free safety. He was so versatile. He also was a great cover guy. The other thing, he was one of our best tacklers, and is when he comes back. He’s a good tackler. It’s going to be missed. You’ve heard me talk about outside linebacker, safety, nickel, a lot the same. I think you need to have the experience, but you also have to have some good instincts.”
And with Robinson out for the year, Stoops admitted they had “a lot of work to do” to get the secondary ready for the season.
“We’ve got a lot to do with those guys. We got a lot of work to do,” he said. “Coach Steve Clinkscale and I, Coach Dean Hood is figuring it out. We’ve got to just get out there and play, get them as much experience as we can, moving them around, just seeing what our best 11 are.”
As much as he wanted to be confident about the secondary unit, he was quick to acknowledge that there were a lot of unknowns across the board.
“We could talk more about this as we progress through practice,” Stoops said. “There’s a lot of unknowns. I do the same thing with our staff. We’re sitting there talking about guys. Shoot, we don’t know yet, we’ve just got to get out there and work with them. I’m not breaking any rules. I’m not out there working with them in the summer. I’m not allowed to. I just have to wait and see. But I am excited about those guys. I think there’s a lot of ability there. We need them to be players.”
But what if I told you, three months later, they are actually outplaying last year’s secondary unit?
This season, the Kentucky defense is allowing just 180.50 passing yards, 6.42 yards per attempt, and a total of just four passing touchdowns. They have also managed five interceptions and 35 pass breakups through eight games.
Individually, Yusuf Corker leads the entire defense with 57 total tackles to go with three pass breakups, one QB hit, and one fumble recovery. From there, Brandin Echols has 56 total tackles, one sack, seven pass breakups (tied with Baity’s team-leading 7 PBUs in 2018), and two forced fumbles, Jamari Brown has 17 total tackles, one TFL, five pass breakups, and one fumble recovery, and Quandre Mosely has 14 tackles, one interception, and two pass breakups.
Moving on down the list, Jordan Griffin has 13 tackles, one sack, one interception, two pass breakups, and one fumble recovery, Tyrell Ajian has 12 tackles, one interception, and one pass breakup, and Cedrick Dort Jr. has 11 tackles, one pass breakup.
True freshmen Taj Dodson and M.J. Devonshire have added a combined five tackles, one pass breakup, and one fumble recovery in just four combined games.
The 2018 secondary failed to give up 300 passing yards in a single game, with only one team throwing for three touchdowns on the unit. This season, Eastern Michigan threw for 337 total yards and Florida followed it up with a 300-yard passing performance of their own. Since then, though, Kentucky has not given up more than 180 passing yards in a single game and just one touchdown through the air in that span.
And this success won’t be short-lived.
Out of the key rotation players in the secondary, there are only three juniors – Robinson, Echols, and, Mosely – and one senior – Griffin. The bulk of the entire unit will be back next season.
Factor in LSU transfer Kelvin Joseph being eligible next season, young talents such Moses Douglass, Jalen Geiger, MJ Devonshire, and Taj Dodson (likely) coming off redshirt seasons, and talented incoming recruits signing with the program in the class of 2020, the secondary is only going to improve moving forward.