This is the second in a series of posts which will break down the '08 football 'Cats. Today we break down the defensive secondary.
The unit that made the largest leap forward last year was the defensive secondary. Defensive Coordinator Steve Brown and Secondary coach Chris Thurmond are to be congratulated on coaching up the talent to a respectable level. The secondary allowed only 206 yard passing yards per game last year, giving up 24 touchdowns through the air. The '07 secondary also recorded 17 interceptions by 12 different players. They did allow an 11.4 yards per catch average, which is a bit high, but by comparison the '08 secondary performed light years more efficiently than any UK secondary in recent memory.
The unit did struggle at times last year, though; giving up 366 yards passing to UL's Brian Brohm ( WR Harry Douglas did his best Jerry Rice impersonation ), 256 yards to unheralded Chris Smelley of South Carolina, and Erick Ainge absolutely lit them up in the first half of the Tennessee game. He finished with 397 passing yards in the three overtime epic.
UK's secondary unit returns everyone except strong safety Roger Williams who recorded 37 tackles and 1 pass break up. Williams' experience and leadership will be missed, but there is simply an overabundance of talent ( if that's possible ) remaining in the secondary.
Any discussion of UK's most talented player, regardless of position, has to begin with junior cornerback Trevard Lindley. For two years Lindley has terrorized wide-outs and quarterbacks with his quickness and anticipation skills. Last year Lindley posted 66 tackles ( second on the team ), with 3 interceptions and 11 big pass break-ups ( he's only four away from breaking the UK career record ). He's quite possibly the best returning cover corner in the SEC. He's also been added to the Nagurski Award watch list ( he would be the first UK player to win the award ), which goes to the nations top defensive player.
Making big plays, causing turnovers, changing games; all of these attributes are evident in Lindley's repertoire of talents. Cases in point:
- Last year versus Arkansas it was Lindley who recovered a fumble and sped 66 yards to the end zone twenty-six seconds before the end of the first half. That play altered the flow of the game. Instead of Arkansas being up 13 points, they found themselves only up six going into half. The crowd, which had been deafening, suddenly were rendered near silent. Ole "mo" was swung our way.
- Lindley's interception of a Brian Brohm pass set up UK's first score in the Louisville game last year. That play set the stage for what would become a monumental upset ( at the time ).
- Lindley's fourth quarter interception of a Matt Flynn pass last year against LSU, set up the tying field goal.
Lindley was voted a Sophomore All-America by CollegeFootballNews.com. He will undoubtedly be the leader of a very strong unit. His ability to read the quarterbacks eyes, and anticipate his opponents cuts makes him an invaluable leader, and hopefully a teacher of his younger teammates.
Returning players of note
Marcus McClinton 6'1" , 201 lbs, Sr. -- 32 tackles, 1 int., 2 pass break-ups ( 8 games ). McClinton has had problems with his knees, which is why he missed five games last year. When he plays he's a play-maker, and a hard hitter. He is projected to be the starting free safety.
Ashton Cobb 6'0'' , 205 lbs, Jr. -- 41 tackles, 2 int., 1 pass break-up. Cobb brings speed and an ability to cause pain to the opponents receivers. He is projected to battle for the starting free safety job left open by the graduation of Roger Williams.
Paul Warford 5'11" , 200 lbs, Jr. -- 41 tackles, 2 int., 9 pass break-ups. Warford is being pressed by David Jones for the other starting cornerback spot. He played big last year, but that may not be enough to hold off Jones and a host of other contenders.
Calvin Harrison 6'1" , 200 lbs, Jr. -- 41 tackles, 1 int., 1 pass break-up. Harrison backed up Marcus McClinton in '07. He played extensively last year and produced at a high level. Like the other members of the secondary, he possesses great speed. Harrison will most likely be in a struggle with Ashton Cobb for the starting free safety spot.
Shomari Moore 5'9", 185 lbs, Sr. -- 20 tackles, 1 int., 2 pass break-ups. Moore backed up Paul Warford at a cornerback spot last year. In '08 Moore will have plenty of competition for playing time. He adds quality depth to a position vital to the success of the team.
Robbie McAtee 5'10", 175 lbs, Sr. -- 11 tackles, 1 pass break-up. McAtee played in 6 games last year as the back-up to Trevard Lindley at cornerback. Look for him to have a fight on his hands to keep his back-up status in tact. He'll have a freshman or two vying against him for the number two spot behind Lindley.
Question mark #1
There are a couple of question marks related to the secondary. The first being the status of Belfry High School product David Jones. Jones ( 5'10", 185 lbs ) can be forgiven if he doesn't know which unit to take the field with this year. He has played cornerback, wide receiver, and on the special teams in his three years at UK. Last year he played the receiver position, but in '08 the speed burner ( 4.4 - 40 ) looks to be battling for the starting corner-back spot opposite Lindley. If Jones succeeds he will have to unseat a very productive Paul Warford.
I think Jones should be commended for acquiescing to his coaches requests. Changing positions can't be an easy thing to do. Much less changing positions three times in four years. As long as David Jones and his jets are on the field I will have no qualms with the coaching staff.
Question mark #2
Former quarterback Matt Lentz turned heads and rocked receivers with his crushing hits in the spring. The 6'3", 210 lb sophomore made a seemingly effortless transition from signal caller to defensive back. His anticipation skills were readily apparent, possibly because of his history at quarterback. Lentz would bring great size to the secondary, and a bit of experience from his high school days; he played DB his sophomore year.
The secondary is loaded, but Lentz's unique combination of size, speed, and ability to read quarterbacks may propel him to serious playing time.
Kentucky's terrific '08 recruiting class is loaded with athletes, some of who will have the opportunity to see action in the secondary. Speed and tremendous athletic ability are the characteristics most abundantly apparent in the following newcomers:
E.J. Fields 6'2", 190 lbs, Fr. -- Fields was one of the premier athletes in the state of Kentucky last year while playing for Frankfort High School. As a defensive back he recorded 8 interceptions, 8 pass break-ups, and 59 tackles. Fields won the state 400 meter dash as a junior. He runs a 4.5 - 40, and was rated the #4 prospect in the state.
Winston Guy 6'1", 190 lbs, Fr. -- Guy, the Lexington Catholic recruit, who originally committed to Arkansas but came to his senses when the Hogs hired Bobby Petrino, will see playing time this year. His 4.35 speed, and overall athleticism will be tough to keep off of the field. Scout.com rated Guy the 12th best safety prospect in the nation, and he was rated the #3 prospect in Kentucky. Getting Guy was a stroke of luck for the UK staff, but as Yogi said, "I'd rather be lucky than good" any day.
The strength of UK's defense lies in its secondary. That's not news. If the '08 'Cats are to reach the magical seven win mark their collective performance will need to improve, though. They must cut down on the number of third and long conversions, which was a problem last year. A fewer number of big plays ( 20 yards or more ) is also a goal of the unit, which will cause the opponent's yard per catch average to drop from 11.4. The defense as a whole gave up 29.6 points per game last year. If Rich Brooks harbors bowl hopes ( and I know he does ) that number must drop. The secondary can do their part by reducing the 24 touchdowns allowed through the air in '07.
Depth should not be a problem. There are a number of terrific athletes available to play. Some of those athletes have vast experience, some have none. My hope is that the older players will lead and guide the youngsters through their demonstrated work ethic. Producing a winning team is a learned process, which can only be taught by those who have succeeded. Lindley, Warford, McClinton, Harrison, and Cobb have all experienced great success on the field. My hope is that the rooks absorb all they can, because with the looming possibility of injuries, one never knows when one will be called upon to perform.
Which UK player holds the single-season record for most interceptions with nine?
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!