Kentucky’s secondary has proved doubters wrong all season long. They have one more opportunity to make a statement in the Belk Bowl against Virginia Tech.
A unit that had to replace its top six players in 2019, most believed the secondary would be the weak-link of Kentucky’s defense. Cornerback Cedric Dort was happy to debunk that theory throughout the season.
“It’s crazy because at the beginning of the year we were picked last in the SEC as a pass defense. We finished first (in the SEC), fourth in the country,” Dort said with a smile on his face Saturday.
“We’re not satisfied because we got another year. We feel like we can just amp it up for some more. We always believed in each other. Our room always believed in us when no one else did. We always had that chip on our shoulder. As the praise started coming, it was something we already knew about us. Everybody was just now catching on.”
Dort and the rest of UK’s cornerbacks will face a Virginia Tech offense that thrives on lulling defenses to sleep in the run game, before attacking the outside to convert big plays in the passing game. The Hokies have completed 21 passes of 30 yards or more, the fifth-most in the ACC. Kentucky has allowed just ten passing plays of that length in 2019, tied for sixth nationally.
“When they throw, they throw efficiently,” said defensive coordinator Brad White, “especially down in the red zone. It really becomes a factor. He (QB Hendon Hooker) does a really nice job on fade balls. We’ve got our work cut out for us. When they throw it up, we’ve gonna have to win 50-50 balls. That’s going to be a crucial part of the game.”
Hooker’s two top targets on the 50-50 passes are Tre Turner (542 yards, 4 TDs) and Damon Hazelton (506 yards, 7 TDs). Each play physical at 6-feet two-inches tall.
Kentucky has faced a pair of opponents who employed a similar offensive gameplan: Tennessee and Louisville. The Volunteers feasted off of jump balls, while Kentucky picked off Cardinal passes in the rain at Kroger Field.
“ACC players live off explosive plays,” said Dort. “We know they’re going to try to take shots for explosive plays, just like Louisville. We’re going to try to do everything we did against Louisville to shut that down.”
UK’s young secondary learned valuable lessons against Tennessee. You can’t win every jump ball, but there are things a defensive back can do to make a wide receiver as uncomfortable as possible.
“They’re going to throw it up and you gotta make a competitive play,” said Dort. “As long as we do what we gotta do — go up and don’t let the ball come down — then we should be in good shape.”
That is much easier said than done. A big reason why Virginia Tech has the best red zone offense in the ACC is their ability to bring down jump balls in the end zone. In what will likely be a low-scoring game, forcing the Hokies to settle for field goals could determine who ultimately leaves the field victorious, and add another feather in the cap of a UK secondary that has consistently exceeded expectations all season.