Mark Stoops will field a secondary that could potentially feature four to five senior starters. Behind those starters lie the most talented collection of rotational players on the roster.
Remember our offensive line post from last week when we said that some analysts evaluate teams based on the number of returning OL starters? Well, other experts apply the same formula to the secondary. 2018 is the year for the Wildcat defensive backs to play at the high-level that the BBN has expected for the past couple of seasons. Potentially the most substantial offseason personnel news did not involve a player. Instead, Associate Head Coach Dean Hood is changing responsibilities from outside linebackers to the secondary. Hood is a long-time, proven football teacher and has an extended track record of player development. For example, think back for a moment and consider which defensive position group showed the most growth during the 2017 season? I’d argue the answer is the outside linebackers which produced two all-conference players and a true freshman that demonstrated tremendous potential.
All-SEC safety/nickel Mike Edwards is UK’s most decorated defensive back. Edwards has averaged 98.5 tackles over the past two seasons. The two-time All-SEC senior spurned the NFL Draft in order to return to Lexington for a senior campaign. Fellow safety Darius West returned in 2017 following a two-season battle with injuries to finish the season as the team’s third leading tackler with 86. Cornerbacks Derrick Baity and Chris Westry have been starters for the better part of three seasons. Lonnie Johnson Jr. showed flashes in 2017 and earned starts at cornerback. With an overabundance of experience at all four spots and plenty of quality depth, spring practice could see experiments with position changes within the secondary.
5 Nickel/Safety Kendall Randolph 6’0, 183 Graduated
- Career statistics: 70 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 1 interception, 3 pass breakups, 2 fumble recovery, 1 forced fumble, 3 quarterback hurries.
Mike Edwards has played safety and nickel throughout his stellar career. Cornerback could be added to that list with spring practice positional experiments. UK plays a great deal of nickel coverages which features five defensive backs. 2018 will see a great deal of depth across the board which means that playing time will be coveted by several Wildcats. The task of unseating a senior starter will be a challenge. The following five defensive backs have played a great deal of college football. Experience is an invaluable trainer.
29 Cornerback Derrick Baity 6’3, 186 Senior
- Four pass breakups vs. Northwestern in Music City Bowl
- Intercepted two passes in 2017. One vs. Vanderbilt, the other vs. South Carolina
- Named as Co-SEC Defensive Player of the Week in a winning effort vs. South Carolina
- Seventh on the team with 47 tackles
- Career: Played in 38 games, started 29. 110 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 5 interceptions, 1 fumble recovery, 1 forced fumble, 16 pass breakups
6 Cornerback Lonnie Johnson Jr. 6’3, 215 Senior
- Started last 5 games of 2017 season
- Career-high 7 tackles vs. Louisville
- Six tackles and a blocked field goal in a victory over Missouri
- Blocked extra point vs. Eastern Kentucky
21 Cornerback Chris Westry 6’4, 195 Senior
- Posted 4 tackles vs. EKU, South Carolina, and Eastern Michigan
- Career statistics: Played in 38 games, started 33. 113 tackles, 3 interceptions, 13 pass breakups, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery, 1 quarterback hurry
25 Safety Darius West 6’0, 210 Senior
- Ranked third on team with 86 tackles in 2017
- Game-high seven tackles vs. Georgia
- 11 tackles vs. EKU. Caused a fumble in week 1 at Southern Miss, also had 7 tackles including 1 for loss.
7 Safety Mike Edwards 6’0, 200 Senior
- Phil Steele 1st Team All-SEC
- Led the team with 97. Ranked 9th leading tackler in the SEC
- Team-high 4 interceptions as well as 7 pass breakups
- Fourth player in school history to lead Kentucky in both tackles and interceptions
- Six double digit tackle games
- Career: 235 tackles, 8 interceptions, 1.5 quarterback sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss, 1 fumble recovery, 1 quarterback hurry, and 17 pass breakups
- Averaged 98.5 tackles over the past two seasons. That average projected to 2018 would place Edwards in the prestigious 300-Tackle Club
This list includes former 4-star athletes and players that could play multiple positions within the secondary. This group also consists of many defenders that play a key role on special teams.
27 Cedrick Dort Jr. 5’11, 170 Sophomore
- Played as a true freshman in 2017
- Two tackles vs. Northwestern in bowl game
17 Tobias Gilliam 5’11, 195 Sophomore
- Two tackles vs. Northwestern
- Steady role player that can make a jump with a strong spring practice
3 Jordan Griffin 6’0, 186 Junior
- 2017 statistics: 22 tackles, 3 pass breakups, and 1 interception
- Can play multiple secondary positions
- Career-high 6 tackles and 1 pass breakup in a win over Missouri
- Highly-skilled defender
13 Zy’Aire Hughes 6’1, 193 Sophomore
- Registered 1 tackle in 2017
9 Davonte Robinson 6’2, 187 Sophomore
- Played in all 13 games of 2017
- Career-high 5 tackles in a road win over Vanderbilt in Nashville
- One of the fastest players on the team
16 Marcus Walker Junior 6’1, 212
- Season-high 2 tackles in win over Vanderbilt
- Active on special teams
23 Tyrell Ajian 6’0, 190 Redshirt Freshman
- Played defensive back, receiver, and quarterback in high school. 4-star prospect
- Projects to multiple positions within the secondary as well as special teams
- Joins Yusuf Corker to make a highly skilled duo of redshirt freshman that can make an impact in spring practice
29 Yusuf Corker 6’0, 190 Redshirt Freshman
- Nation’s 26th ranked cornerback, top rated CB in the state of Georgia. 4-star prospect with a high ceiling
- Will factor in rotation and special teams
Stanley Garner and Dom Williams are early enrollees and will factor in spring practice.
Cornerback Jamari Brown 6’2, 180 Freshman
- Had offers from every Power 5 Conferences
- Top 100 cornerback in America. Missed time with injuries during senior season.
- Did not enroll early. Will not factor in spring practice.
Cornerback Stanley Garner 6’2, 180 Freshman
- Early enrollee, will participate in spring practice. Confident athlete.
- Two-way standout at Dillard High School, Florida. 4-star prospect, teammate of Jordan Wright. Entertained dozens of offers.
- Rangy, tall cornerback. Extremely talented.
Defensive Back Domonique Williams 5’10, 180 Junior
- Twice recruited by Dean Hood. Originally signed with EKU out of Fulton High School, Tennessee.
- Highland Community College, Kansas product. Recorded 79 tackles, 6 interceptions, and 15 pass breakups.
- Can play nickel, cornerback, or safety.
What does all this mean?
Kentucky’s defensive backs construct the most talented secondary in recent memory on paper. Multiple 4-star prospects litter its depth chart which is led by experienced, senior players. The table is set for a bounce-back season from 2017 when the Cats finished 13th in the league by allowing 251.6 passing yards per game. Pass defense involves more than just the defenders tasked in covering receivers. A disruptive pass rush hurries the quarterback which lessens the time for pass catchers to get open. Dean Hood will improve the secondary. How much is the only question I have going into spring practice.