The 2020 college football season is up and running and it figures to be a crazy one. It’s officially game week in the SEC and that should get you excited. Kentucky enters this season with one of the best rosters in program history and they’ll be looking to cash in with a strong season as they return a boatload of production. Our preview series rolls on as we enter the secondary. After having one of the best pass defenses in the sport last season, Kentucky adds two important pieces to the crop in 2020 and the sky is the limit.
Leader in the Room
Yusuf Corker was a very nice recruiting win for Kentucky in the class of 2017 as the Wildcats dipped into the talent-heavy Atlanta metro area and secured a commitment from a four-star prospect. Originally expected to play corner, Corker quickly moved to safety and had to wait his turn in his first two seasons on campus. Once given an opportunity in 2019, he cashed in with a very productive season.
The yoked-up safety led the team in tackles (74) as he became a major player in run support by acting as a force player. UK would often send it’s 6-foot, 197-pound safety sprinting towards the box to stop opposing offenses in their tracks. Kentucky has another NFL Draft prospect in their secondary.
Corker was getting some all-conference love this preseason and he’s a candidate with DeAndre Square to lead the team in tackles this season. UK is all set at one of the safety positions as Corker will start his 14th game in a row when the team opens up the season on the Plains.
#1 Kelvin Joseph — The LSU transfer and former top-50 recruit had to sit out all of last season, but the man that they call Bossman Fat has made quite the first impression in his time on campus and he was listed as the starting boundary corner in UK’s first depth chart. “He’s a difference-maker,” said Mark Stoops following a spring practice in March. Expectations are high and Joseph could be the second most popular player in the fanbase outside of Terry Wilson.
#3 Cedrick Dort Jr. — Corner was a huge position of worry heading into last season, but come November UK had one of the best passes defenses in college football. Dort turned into the team’s best cover guy and the former low three-star recruit was lights out to close the season. He won’t get the start at Auburn, but expect him to play plenty backing up both corner spots.
#9 Davonte Robinson — The one known the Kentucky secondary had was Robinson in 2019, but unfortunately he was lost for the season in training camp. The Lexington native recorded 42 tackles in a reserve role in 2018 and he’ll open the season as the starter at nickel. However, the coaching staff has said repeatedly this recovery has been a slow process so expectations should be tempered to begin the season for the redshirt senior.
#11 Moses Douglass — Douglass was a blue-chip recruiting win for the staff in the class of 2018, but he’s currently in a loaded position. Last year was a redshirt season for the UK legacy and Douglass will likely have to wait another season before the opportunity presents itself for playing time. The hard-hitter will have a chance to make an impact on special teams this fall.
#21 Quandre Mosely — Mosely was a signing day surprise in 2019 and the Georgia native started slow at Kentucky. After many expected for him to compete for snaps at corner or nickel, Mosely was moved to safety and he turned into one of UK’s best cover guys. Mosely made an appearance on the two-deep and will be present in the defense’s subpackages.
#23 Tyrell Ajian— Another blue-chip recruit, Ajian was the sixth defensive back in UK’s dime defense back in 2018, but he seemed to get lost in the wash last season recording just 17 tackles and two starts. However, he won a position battle in camp and he’ll open the season as a starting safety. Ajian has recorded two interceptions and this leads all current Wildcats on the roster.
#26 Brandin Echols — The junior college transfer was outstanding in his first season in Lexington as he finished with 50-plus tackles and led the team with nine pass break-ups. Echols also had a forced fumble that led to a walk-off touchdown in the Belk Bowl and has a legit shot at turning into an NFL Draft selection this season.
#30 Taj Dodson — Dodson was a late addition to the class of 2019 and the high three-star prospect made an immediate impact. Dodson backed up Corker at safety and played a ton of meaningful snaps against Florida with a fumble recovery. The Atlanta area native suffered an injury and played just three games, but he will provide depth and should get more snaps this fall.
#32 Jamari Brown — Brown opened last season as a starter, but would eventually be beat out by Dort. However, he produced in three starts recording 25 tackles and seven pass break-ups. He’s listed as Joseph’s backup at boundary corner and will provide experienced depth in 2020.
#34 Jalen Geiger — Geiger was another rookie defensive back who redshirted last season and will look to provide depth this season. Geiger has a lot of bodies in front of him, but he could become a special teams factor in 2020.
#36 M.J. Devonshire — Devonshire was a monster late recruiting win as UK snuck into Pennsylvania and stole a recruitment many considered a lock to go to Pittsburgh. The 5-foot-11 defensive back was given a ton of praise early in camp last year before an arm injury limited playing opportunities. This is a very talented prospect who could potentially get snaps down the line at either outside corner spot or nickel at some point this season.
Newcomers — The biggest surprise among the class of 2020 in fall camp is that push that #7 Vito Tisdale has made. The Bowling Green native saw his recruiting stock drop during his senior season, but he is quickly proving to be a valuable asset. He made an appearance and will likely be the only new secondary member to play major snaps this season.
#27 Joel Williams was another blue-chip win for the staff and the Louisiana native has all of the tools to be a successful corner in the SEC. #25 Andru Phillips might have had the most fun tape to watch of all the rookies and the legacy recruit will bring physicality to the field. #35 Rickey Hyatt Jr. is a rangy safety who could play multiple spots for UK and was a tackling machine up in Ohio.
#14 Carrington Valentine was the lowest ranked recruit in Kentucky’s 2020 class, but the Cincinnati Moeller product is making quite the early impact. The tall corner has legit track speed and has passed the early tests. “He’s done well for us at corner, getting some reps. He’s impressed us,” said Stoops.
The 2019 Kentucky Wildcats finished the season as the SEC’s leader in pass defense after allowing just 167.8 yards per game. That number was good enough to be ranked second in the nation just behind Ohio State. UK returns all but one starter and is boosted by the addition of capable redshirt and true freshmen.
The secondary is led by preseason All-SEC free safety Yusuf Corker (6’0, 197) who registered a team high 74 tackles a year ago. Backing up Corker is the talented redshirt freshman Taj Dodson. Strong safeties Tyrell Ajain and Quandre Mosely are a part of a group that is interchangeable with the nickel position.
Senior Davonte Robinson returns as the starting nickel after missing 2019 due to injury. Robinson is experienced and will be a welcome addition to the Wildcat secondary. True freshman Vito Tisdale is listed as the number two nickel and has enjoyed a productive and promising fall camp. Tisdale is the only true freshman on the defense’s initial two-deep depth chart.
Cornerback is yet another deep position group. LSU transfer Kelvin Joseph earned the starting role after impressing the coaching staff during his stay in Lexington. Backing up Joseph is redshirt sophomore Jamari Brown. Brown had three starts in 2019. Brandin Echols is listed as the other starting CB and had a productive first year as a Wildcat. Echols registered 52 tackles and led the team with 9 pass breakups. Behind Echols is junior Cedrick Dort who started 12 games in 2019 and allowed zero touchdown passes.
Coach Steve Clinkscale and Coach Frank Buffano have a deep and experienced group of defensive backs to work with in 2020. Kentucky will face several dynamic offenses in 2020 starting with the Auburn Tigers. The Cats will be tested on a weekly basis and need another season with high level secondary play in order to maintain its status as one of the SEC and nation’s leaders in pass defense.
Biggest Question Mark
When you look at the numbers last season, it’s hard to come away too critical of the secondary. The Wildcats were lights against the pass most of the year and while they struggled at times helping with run support, they overall overachieved last season.
UK ranked in the top-15 nationally when it came to yards per attempt and opponent quarterback rating while they tied with Ohio State for the least amount of touchdown passes allowed. Yes, they benefitted from weather, but it is hard to ask for this group to do much more. However, there is one specific area that needs to take a step forward.
Despite all of this success, the Wildcats reeled in just eight interceptions and this ranked 89th nationally. Kentucky ranked in the top-25 in passes broken up, but those PBUs could not turn into interceptions. This season Kentucky must turn this solid coverage into takeaways and that is only going to make this football team more dangerous.
One Bold Prediction
“Vito Tisdale will be a primary starter”
Tisdale seems to have all of the traits Mark Stoops wants in a secondary player and it appears that the true freshman has a tailor-made skill set to star at the nickel spot which both needs to be able to cover in addition to blitz and help in run support. You need a ton of instincts to succeed at this position in UK’s scheme and the U.S. Army All-American is proving to have the goods.
The young player has already drawn comparisons to former UK great Mike Edwards and made an appearance on the first depth chart. Davonte Robinson’s return means the rookie could have to wait a bit, but it’s pretty obvious that the staff is going to find a spot for him. When UK goes dime, don’t be surprise if you see No. 7 out there.
By the end of the season, it will be hard to keep him off the field and he will lock down a starting spot somewhere. Entering 2021 we will be talking about him as one of the proven commodities on UK’s defense.