Defensive backs have a unique swagger. Good ones have it, great ones live it. The position has transitioned throughout the years and today requires a diverse skill set that blends a linebacker’s mentality and two guard athleticism with center fielder intuition. Labeling these players can be difficult as cornerbacks also play Nickel as well as interchangeable free and strong safeties. Cornerbacks and Safeties are coached by Derrick Ansley and Head Coach Mark Stoops. The Stoops effect along with improvement necessity puts this group in the spotlight. Ansley and Stoops are intense as urgency fosters results. I’m fascinated to watch this play out. Going into 2015 I’m fairly confident in defensive line and linebacker improvement, how this unit performs is critical in the bowl or not season. This post will try to explain specifics and differences in positions within the defensive backfield.
Cornerback (CB)-These defensive backs are called upon for run support but their main function is to defend against the pass. When called upon to tackle running backs often times they find themselves out-sized and muscled. When playing on an island (one on one vs. an outside receiver) CB’s again can find themselves in a physical mismatch against larger receivers. Thus self-confidence bordering on arrogance, a short memory, and attitude are musts. I’ve stated this position must improve and I stand by that. But the defense as a unit affects cornerback play not just the actions of the two. If pass rush is non-existent or slow then CB’s are matched up against freakishly athletic receivers for a longer period of time. Deon (Prime-Time) Sanders would struggle to guard for 5 seconds. CB’s are asked to play both zone and man to man defense much like in basketball. Some excel in one or the other with man to man skill being mandatory. Mark Stoops identified this position’s struggle against physical receivers as an issue and signed taller personnel. Throw red-shirt freshmen into the equation and other players that will be transitioned to corner and the result is a heated competition for playing time. Fighting for clock will increase depth and positional production as the bench is the best motivator in collegiate athletics. There is something to be said for experience, returning CB’s Fred Tiller and Cody Quinn have gone head to head with SEC’s best for three years. Holding onto their jobs will be a challenge, but if the elders succeed, then obvious progress has been made. Reliance upon newcomers is a boom or bust proposition. Physical traits include fluid hips, speed, lateral movement, audacity, and in modern times height. Optimal size is 6’0 180 pounds, forty time is important but I lean more so on closing speed and quick bursts used in closing.
Projected starters: Potential open competition with returning starters being Cody Quinn and Fred Tiller.
Others:-J.D. Harmon, Jared Tucker, Jaleel Hytche, Kendal Randolph, Derrick Baity, Kei Beckham, Will Jackson, Chris Westry
Free Safety-Baseball’s center fielder playing football is the last in the line of defense before the bad guys score. Zone coverage is prominent, but also must be adequate in man to man. In this coverage, the FS is usually matched up against the tight end or running back. Anticipation, communication, and offensive schematic knowledge are required traits along with the ability to quickly process run/pass. Aggressive mentality is also a desired virtue with the “football is mine” mentality when the ball is in the air. AJ Stamps is the pre-emptive starter coming off a highlight year that tailed off due to injury. I’m fairly confident this position will be a strength. Free Safeties are the quarterbacks of the defensive backfield. Best case measurables are 6’0 180 with speed and intelligence leading to success.
Projected starter: AJ Stamps
Depth-Glenn Faulkner, Darious West, Mike Edwards, Marcus Walker
Strong Safety-Combines linebacker traits and mentality with free safety expectation. Commonly described as playing “downhill” against the run, this phrase references physicality by tackling the ball carrier or forcing momentum close to the line of scrimmage. UK’s current personnel situation will force interchangeability but there are differences in the two safety positions. SS’s can be called on to be the 4th or 5th LB and while at times tasked with being free safety equal and shut down passing windows. Somewhere in between is optimal. Marcus McWilson surfaced as the post-spring starter. However, there’s now quality depth with talented freshmen pressing the issue. Normally SS’s are physically stronger than their counterpart with same run/pass detection requirement.
6’0 200 pounds is preferable but this position is more based on skill duality or the ability to play the pass and enforce the run game than mere height/weight. Nasty streak required as strong safeties are often the defensive backfield’s most called upon tackler.
Projected starter: Marcus McWilson
Depth: Darious West, Mike Edwards, Zack Blaylock
Nickel-Can be described as an additional defensive back commonly deployed during obvious passing situations or as a counter to spread offenses that utilize four receivers. The Nickel supplants a linebacker and is a close relative to the strong safety. The term Nickel comes from being the fifth defensive back. Diversity being a one word description the position has evolved into a modern-day football mainstay. In fact, some defenses self-describe as a 3-3-5 utilizing a permanent fifth DB. Combine CB, FS, and SS traits and then you have the Nickel. Called upon for man coverage, occasionally blitz the QB, support the run, and play in zone coverage are a normal day. Kentucky DB’s that play Nickel are listed at other positions and play the role due to necessity. In Mark Stoops’ tenure, Blake McClain and Kendall Randolph have both played this position and played it well.
Starters: Blake McClain, Kendall Randolph
Tom Leach often tells a story which is applicable to this post. In Papa John Stadium while observing Cardinal first round draft pick DeVante Parker Tom said, “UK needs to either get one of those or somebody who can stop one of those.” Prophetic.