UK Football Positional Preview: Secondary

(Photo courtesy of Lexington Herald-Leaders

When he left Florida State, Mark Stoops was considered a defensive genius, particularly in the secondary, where he coached several well known defensive backs, including . However, his secondaries at Kentucky have not done as well. Mark Stoops does not have the time to coach defense like he did when working as defensive coordinator for Jimbo Fisher. In 2016, Stoops assumed the defensive playcalling role and worked with the defensive backs. After the 2016 season, D.J. Eliot was relieved of his defensive coordinator duties and left for Colorado University. Enter Matt House. House’s defense have been a mixed bag of results. The 2016 season, under D.J. Eliot, saw them allowing 214.5 yards per game, good for 43rd nationally. In 2017, under Matt House, the Kentucky defensive backs allowed 263.5 yards per game, ranking 113th in the country. Was the decline in passing defense coincidental, or a direct result of House’s leadership? Coach Steven Clinksale was the defensive backs coach in Eliot’s last year, as well as House’s first year. In 2018, Clinksale will be assisted by Dean Hood, who will be moving from linebackers to secondary.

(Photo courtesy of Gerry Melendez/The State)

The cornerback position is one that has a ton of returning talent, as well as returning starters. The two returning starters for Kentucky are Derrick Baity (6-3, 182) and Lonnie Johnson (6-3, 203). Both of these players started multiple games for Kentucky last year. Derrick Baity started all 13 games at corner for the Wildcats, while Lonnie Johnson played in all 13 games. Baity had 49 total tackles, 2 interceptions and 9 pass breakups. Jordan Griffin (6-0, 186) will likely back up Baity. Griffin played in all 13 games and recorded 22 total tackles, 1 interception and 3 pass breakups. Behind Griffin, freshman Cedric Dort (6-0, 180) will provide quality depth. Dort appeared in 9 games and had 6 total tackles. At the other corner spot, Lonnie Johnson had 41 total tackles, 1 sack and 5 pass breakups. Behind Johnson will be former starter Chris Westry (6-4, 195), who will be in heavy rotation at this position. Westry had 33 total tackles and one pass breakup last year. Also behind Johnson will be JUCO cornerback Dominique Williams (5-11, 190).

(Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports)

The strong safety position is one that has had consistency for several years, with Mike Edwards (6-0, 200) manning the position since his freshman year. Edwards has been All-SEC the past two years, earning postseason third team honors as a sophomore and preseason third team as a junior. Edwards had 44 total tackles, 4 interceptions and 7 pass breakups. He returns for his senior season looking to improve upon his numbers. Edwards will be backed up by Tobias “Cash” Gilliam (6-0, 190). Gilliam played in six games and had 3 total tackles. Behind Gilliam, freshman Yusuf Corker, who redshirted this season, will provide quality depth. Corker was a composite four star out of high school and plays very physically and possesses the speed and strength to excel at safety.

(Photo courtesy of Lexington Herald-Leader)

At free safety, Darius West (6-0, 210) started 13 games for the Wildcats after successfully rehabbing from his injury. West had 86 total tackles, 1 interception and 1 pass breakup. He also added 4 tackles for loss. Behind West, Davonte Robinson (6-2, 187) will provide a competent backup who is talented enough to start, if needed. Robinson appeared in all 13 games in 2017 and had 19 total tackles. Freshman Tyrell Ajian (6-0, 190) redshirted in 2017 and has added muscle. He is listed at 190 pounds, but is likely closer to 200 pounds.

(Photo courtesy of UK Athletics)

The nickel back position is the only position in the defensive backfield that does not have a returning starter. While Kendall Randolph’s shoes will be hard to fill, Marcus Walker (6-1, 212) has the experience and size to successfully fulfill this duty. Walker played in 12 games and had 5 total tackles. He plays physically, but has the speed to cover in passing situations. Behind Walker, the nickel position is wide open. A possible option to back up Walker is Tobias “Cash” Gilliam. Another option is freshman Michael Nesbitt (6-0, 190), who redshirted in 2017. Nesbitt came out of high school as a corner, which means he has cover skills, but also has the size to contribute in run support.

The Kentucky defensive backs will be an experienced and talented group in 2018. They have starters returning at four out of the five positions. The depth behind these starters is also very talented and the position battles in camp will be interesting and fun to watch. In my opinion, the depth chart will likely look like this:

CB: Derrick Baity (6-3, 182); Jordan Griffin (6-0, 186); Cedric Dort (6-0, 180)

CB: Lonnie Johnson (6-3, 203); Chris Westry (6-4, 195); Dominique Williams (5-11, 190)

SS: Mike Edwards (6-0, 200); Tobias Gilliam (6-0, 190); Yusuf Corker (6-0, 190)

FS: Darius West (6-0, 210); Davonte Robinson (6-2, 187); Tyrell Ajian (6-0, 190)

Nickel: Marcus Walker (6-1, 212); Tobias Gilliam (6-0, 190); Michael Nesbitt (6-0, 190)

With this group, the pass defense should improve dramatically. If it does, Kentucky and its defense could have a great year. If it doesn’t then the year could be another one like this year, filled with missed opportunities.

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