After Kentucky’s historic ten-win season, Mark Stoops was left with one big question, “Who’s next?”
First, most fans want to know how Stoops is going to replace Benny Snell or Josh Allen. They’re two of the greatest to ever play the position. You can’t expect one person to carry that load by themselves, but at least it is just one position. Eddie Gran has a trio of exceptional running backs and Brad White has a talented group of players lined up next to Allen’s former position on the defensive line.
Those losses weren’t the greatest hit Kentucky took. Since 2015 Chris Westry, Derrick Baity, Mike Edwards, Lonnie Johnson and Darius West were staples in the secondary. How do you replace five guys who are all in NFL training camps this summer? That question will define Kentucky’s preseason, and it just got a whole lot more difficult to answer.
Of all the returning defensive backs, Davonte Robinson had the most experience and most upside. A track star who recorded a 4.29 at UK football camp in 2015, he patiently waited for his opportunity to become the next star in UK’s secondary. Now that door has been slammed shut, thanks to an untimely injury.
Robinson will miss the 2019 season after suffering a quadriceps injury. Of all the players to go down before the start of the season, aside from Lynn Bowden, Robinson is the most difficult player to replace.
Not only is Robinson the most experienced player in Kentucky’s secondary, he is the most versatile. Like Mike Edwards, Robinson can play deep safety or walk up into the nickel as a slot cornerback. Run support or pass, Robinson has the tools to do it all, something this young group absolutely needs this fall.
Cornerbacks that have played slim to none must grow up fast. The trial by fire can leave them in the dust, chasing wide receivers downfield after big plays. Stoops can somewhat shield them with scheme, but only to a certain extent. A talented safety could mitigate those mistakes as well. Robinson has the athleticism and football knowledge to cover the deep zones of the field from sideline to sideline.
When projecting this group of defensive backs, there was always one optimistic caveat, “at least they have Davonte Robinson.” Now, the young players must learn without a veteran prepared to erase their mistakes.
No Preseason Without a Significant Injury
Another year, another lost starter for the season. Injuries happen on every college football team across the country, it just feels like they always happen to UK’s most important players.
In a 2018 preseason scrimmage, Kentucky lost its most talented offensive lineman when left tackle Landon Young suffered a knee injury. The year before Dorian Baker ended the best preseason of his career by suffering a season ending leg injury. In 2016 Darius West suffered his third season-ending leg injury in four years.
West was able to overcome his injury and return to the field for two years as Kentucky’s full-time starter at free safety. He parlayed that into a training camp spot with the Cincinnati Bengals. West was lucky in that it happened a year earlier than Robinson. In his redshirt junior year, West’s timing and angles were off on deep balls, a side effect from being on the sideline for so long. Robinson will not receive that luxury when he returns. With a redshirt already burned, unless he receives a medical hardship waiver, the Lexington native will only have one season to be a full-time starter for the Cats.
Not Completely Inexperienced
At least Robinson played safety?
The most talented and most experienced players in the secondary all play safety and/or nickel. Jordan Griffin rotated with Robinson and Edwards in practice at each position. A defensive back who did not redshirt, he played in eight games as a true freshman and has received reps in at least 12 games in each of the past two seasons. He’s accumulated 41 tackles, five pass break-ups and an interception over the last three years.
Tyrell Ajian was formidable in limited reps at free safety last season, picking off a crucial Nick Fitzgerald pass in the fourth quarter against Mississippi State. In the interior the physical Yusuf Corker can play a significant role in run support. Moses Douglass made a few big hits as an early enrollee this spring. Quandre Mosely was recruited to Kentucky to play cornerback, but the Georgia athlete spent the last two years playing safety in junior college. All four players were four-star recruits before they came to Kentucky.
What Does This All Mean?
It sucks. There’s no other way to put it.
To spin it, one can say that Kentucky has recruited a ton of talent in the secondary. Pretty much every safety on the roster was a four-star recruit. Still, you can’t replicate in-game experience. Robinson brought talent and invaluable experience at multiple positions. Now the best way for Kentucky to limit big plays in the passing game is for the defensive line to get to the quarterback first. A Josh Allen would sure come in handy right about now.
Steve Clinkscale, Dean Hood and Stoops will earn every dollar of their paycheck as they search for Robinson’s replacement.