Mark Stoops is facing quite a conundrum in the secondary. The defensive back specialist will be tasked to replace five seniors, all of which started almost as soon as they stepped onto campus.
“It definitely changes because there’s no replacing that experience,” UK’s head coach said at SEC Media Days. “We had the ability to watch them go through the ups and the downs, and they grow and they mature. You know, it was unique to have that amount of experience in our secondary with one group, a
nd that is hard to replace.”
The next players up to bat have not started, but have gotten their feet wet. Davonte Robinson, Jordan Griffin and Cedrick Dort have played in some capacity throughout their time on campus. Stoops believes Dort would have made an impact at cornerback last fall, if not for an untimely injury.
“He played two years ago. Last year he ended up redshirting. He would have been the fourth corner last year, but he got a severe high ankle sprain late in camp and missed most of the season. And we had those veterans that you were talking about, and so we were able to redshirt him,” said Stoops.
The redshirt juniors, Robinson and Griffin, were highly-touted four-star recruits that could have started when they first arrived on campus, if not for the future NFL players ahead of them on the depth chart. Kash Daniel was in a similar situation when he arrived on campus. He learned quite a lot playing behind Courtney Love for the first two years of his college career.
“Everybody wants to play right away, but in reality, it’s the SEC,” Daniel said. “For me, JG and Davonte, I had to wait a couple years, so did they. I think it gives you an opportunity on how to hone in on how to take mental reps, how to watch film, what to look for out there in practice, how to practice and how to come to work with an attitude day-to-day to get better.
“I think me being behind Courtney and getting a chance to watch him was a really good example for me, not only as a leader, but as a player as well. There’s a lot and you just gotta soak in everything that’s around you. I think Davonte and JG have done an unbelievable job for us this spring and this summer helping me organize 7-on-7 stuff with coaches not being there and stuff like that and having everybody ready to go each and everyday. I’m excited to see those guys come out and do their thing. It should be really exciting season for them.”
With all that being said, you cannot replicate game reps. That experience is invaluable. There’s quite a bit of drop off in experience after those three. Brandin Echols and Quandre Mosely have only seen action in junior college. Jamari Brown has all of the physical tools to excel at cornerback, but still has a long way to go to be comfortable on the field.
To help with the Cats’ learning curve, Stoops will try to schematically put the corners in a position to succeed.
“As far as altering us, I do think you have to look at ways. You know, I’ve been a secondary guy for a long time, and there are ways you could try to protect a corner here and there in the way you go about your defenses, but not always. Let’s face it. That’s a position where they’re going to be on an island and you have to win some one-on-one battles. There’s just no getting around it. So there’s times you can protect and help and lean, but then there’s times when you have to win,” said Stoops.
Kentucky’s secondary will look dramatically different in 2019. To make sure the pass defense does not dramatically drop off the map, the newcomers must learn quickly or get left behind.