Before he was an elite defensive coordinator, Mark Stoops transformed college football secondary’s into some of the best to ever play college football (see: 2001 Miami Hurricanes). Unfortunately, it’s probably been the weakest link of the defense the past two seasons. With fresh new faces and added experience, Stoops’ secondary will take a step forward in year three.
The strongest spots are the two safeties. A.J. Stamps is one of the best in the SEC at free safety. Marcus McWilson is best remembered for his dropped interception late in the Louisville game, but the Junior is ready to move forward after finally finding his comfort zone during the middle of last season after consistently being critiqued by Stoops. The best meter for McWilson’s improved play: he’s still starting over Darius West. West and Edwards were both forced to redshirt during the freshmen seasons, but have received nothing but praise from the coaching staff for their quick reactions, hard hits and football IQ. The safeties might be the Cats’ deepest position, but freshman Marcus Walker can be game-ready if needed.
The greatest conundrum on the entire team is at cornerback, so much so that I wrote 1,000 words on how the position will play out with so many fresh faces. Fred Tiller, Cody Quinn, and JD Harmon are still battling for playing time, but the position will ultimately be up to the progression of the true freshmen. Derrick Baity has stood out alongside Chris Westry, but don’t be surprised to see the physical Will Jackson or the speedy Kei Beckham at some point.
The Cats ranked 44th in passing yards per game last season, allowing opponents to throw for 215 yards a game. In most passing statistical categories they remained in the middle of the road, but still not up to Mark Stoops’ standards.
Last year’s starting cornerbacks Fred Tiller and Cody Quinn return, even though they only combined for 2 interceptions and 15 pass breakups.
The most efficient position was at safety. Stamps and McWilson were 1st and 2nd on the team in interceptions (4 and 3), and were satisfactory in run support. Stamps was fifth on the team in tackles with 56, one shy of Za’Darius Smith.
Junior Blake McClain has done an exceptional job at the nickel position, starting since his first game as a true freshmen. Kendall Randolph has always been high on Stoops’ list as Blake’s backup, but will be leaned on more this year at cornerback, and in the nickel and dime roles
#11 A.J. Stamps- Superstar Stamps is a no-brainer after breaking out at free safety during his first season. Not only was he making crazy plays like the one above, he wasn’t afraid to hit somebody. There probably isn’t a position more important in the secondary than the centerfielder of the defense, and it’s a luxury for that person to be your leader and best player.
#21 Chris Westry- Nobody has been hyped more during fall camp than true freshman Chris Westry. The impressive Florida freshman is not only standing 6’4″ tall (with muscles to support the tall frame), he’s arguably the fastest guy on the team alongside Jeff Badet and Boom Williams. The closest thing we’ve ever seen to a play like this at UK is Trevard Lindley, and even Lindley wasn’t as big, nor as fast. Westry is a Day 1 starter. It will be interesting to see how well he can handle himself on an island against the best wide receivers in the SEC.
#5 Kendall Randolph- I expect don’t expect anyone to take a bigger step forward this Fall than the versatile sophomore. He’s been able to learn the nickel position under the wings of Blake McClain. He has the athleticism and physical mentality to play anywhere on the field, and that’s where Stoops will play him – nickel, dime, cornerback, anywhere they need him. Not only does he have the physical attributes, he has the intangibles to be an excellent playmaker in big-game situations.