UK Football: Cats building depth in secondary

by Mark Ingram

Mark Stoops knows a thing or two about good defensive-back play.

The third-year Kentucky head coach has specialized in coaching the secondary during his career. During his time at Wyoming, Miami, Arizona and Florida State, Stoops churned out future NFL talents and saw his defenders help anchor five double-digit win teams.

Stoops is looking to improve the play of the UK secondary in 2015, using a combination of veterans and a bevy of talented underclassmen.

The Wildcats return several key playmakers in the defensive backfield, including senior corners Fred Tiller and Cody Quinn, a duo that boasts a combined 47 starts.

In addition to the return of Tiller and Quinn, UK welcomes back junior J.D. Harmon and sophomore Kendall Randolph, a pair of key secondary contributors.

Senior A.J. Stamps and junior Marcus McWilson have earned early praise from Stoops for their safety play, with UK also returning nickel-back weapon Blake McClain.

“The nice thing is I really feel good about the safety position right now,” Stoops said following UK’s fourth practice of training camp on Monday afternoon. “Again, you’ve heard me talk about it. I have not been very pleased with that position for the two years that I’ve been here. At times last year we were very good with A.J. but I really like the depth we’re starting to create there. Mike Edwards and Darius (West) are going to be really good football players. Very explosive guys. And Marcus and A.J. are playing very good right now. They’re repping with the ones, and they’re both playing very good football but they’re getting pushed. We’ve got depth.”

While Kentucky returns several standouts in the secondary, it is the potential of freshmen talents Derrick Baity, Kei Beckham, Mike Edwards, Will Jackson, Marcus Walker, Darius West and Chris Westry that has the Wildcats poised for their best defensive-back depth of the Stoops era.

Westry, a 6-foot-4, 185-pound native of Orange Park, Fla., draws immediate attention due to his frame and potential game-changing speed.

“Like you guys have mentioned, you saw him rotating in there the other day (with the ones),” Stoops said about Westry getting first-team reps. “Chris may have some top-end that you look for, top-end speed that you look for. But I really like the way the other two guys are moving around, as well as Kei Beckham. Kei is a guy that, much like some of the guys you’ve heard me talk about, he has the instincts to play inside and move around, the smarts and the instincts to play some nickel and some dime, so we’re moving him around a little bit as well.”

Stoops has seen his fair share of standout freshman corners, including one particular star during his time at Arizona.

“The one that jumps out at me, I started Antoine Cason (at Arizona) and all he did was start every game for four years and win the Thorpe (Award) and become a first-round draft pick,” Stoops said. “So that was nice. But Antoine is a guy I talk a lot about in recruiting, because he came in – I remember making that decision two days before the opener saying, ‘Let’s go with Antoine,’ and that was a good move. He went through some growing pains but had a great career.”

While UK will boast several potential standouts among its newcomers, Stoops has singled out the leadership his veterans have provided early in training camp.

“I’ve seen those guys respond very well,” Stoops said. “Our whole team is a lot like that now. Guys are really, truly in it for each other and care about each other. There’s still great competition going on right now, but the guys, they know we’re here to get better. We come in these rooms and watch film, and film doesn’t lie. So ultimately the best players are gonna play, but there’s good competition. But our guys care about each other and they want to win.”

A former defensive back at Iowa, Stoops understands the pressure placed upon members of the secondary and is eager to continue to test his blossoming secondary throughout training camp, leading up to the season opener on Sept. 5 vs. UL Lafayette at The New Commonwealth Stadium.

“In the secondary, you could play corner and not get a whole heck of a lot of action – maybe three, four plays a game – but those plays determine whether you win or lose a lot of times. How many competitive plays are you making? I like what I see so far from the young corners, and we’ll see as we progress through camp who turns out to earn the starting jobs and the playing time. I like what I see, like I said, and I want to keep on putting them in tough positions.”

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