UK Football: The Secondary

The return of all-world cornerback Trevard  Lindley to the Kentucky defensive secondary ranks as perhaps the top football story of 2009 for UK football backers.  When it was announced in the spring that Lindley was going to test the NFL draft waters, my thought was, "Well, he's gone."  Well, wrong.  And thankfully so.

Not in the recent annals of UK football history has a player been so decorated, so respected at his position, as Trevard Lindley.  Since his freshmen year, when he was named a freshman All-America, Lindley's performance on the field has garnered enough awards and accolades to make Tim Tebow blush.  But, Lindley's UK legacy doesn't end there, though -- He has the great distinction of being the only current Wildcat who has started every game since the death of "Old UK" back in ...

  • ... 2006: Andre' Woodson emerged from the shadows of Shane Boyd, as a steely-eyed dart throwing machine, resulting in UK winning eight games for the first time since winning nine in 1984.  Starting at cornerback, Trevard Lindley.
  • In 2007, UK once again led by Andre Woodson, won eight contests, also winning their second straight bowl game, a feat not accomplished in Lexington since the 1950-1951 seasons.  Starting at cornerback, Trevard Lindley.
  • And in 2008, after Woodson, Keenan Burton, Stevie Johnson, Jacob Tamme, and Rafael Little all had departed for the pro ranks, UK still found a way to win seven games, and a program first, third straight bowl victory.  And they did it with a lot of bad luck (a mountain of major injuries), a little defense, some good luck (Arkansas), and Trevard Lindley at cornerback.

He's one of the few common threads connecting the previous three UK teams; now he's the only regular contributor to the '06 team still pounding the turf at Commonwealth.  He's made Kentucky better, not only with his great skill level, but Lindley has proved to be a supernova when UK has needed to shine the brightest:

  • In '06, Lindley's freshman year, he intercepted Georgia's Matt Stafford inside the final minute sealing UK's first victory over the Dogs since 1996.
  • Also in '06, against Clemson in the Music City Bowl, Lindley had an interception and fumble recovery in the 'Cats first bowl victory since 1984.
  • In '07 versus U of L, on the first play of the game (how sweet), he intercepted a Brian Bohm pass and returned it 33-yards, setting up a UK touchdown.  He set the tone for the 'Cats that day, a day UK upset the ninth-rated Cards.
  • Also in '07, in a thrilling game against Arkansas, Lindley sparked a UK comeback with a 66-yard fumble return for a touchdown.  It was the week after the U of L win, and fans were wanting affirmation.  And affirmation they received.
  • And again in '07, versus LSU, in perhaps the most monumental display of drawing a bead on the quarterback's read in the history of college football, Lindley intercepted an LSU pass which set up the game-tying field goal in the fourth quarter.
  • Not satisfied, Lindley again in 2007 versus Tennessee, intercepted a pass late in the game, sending the epic contest into its first overtime.
  • In the 2007 Music City Bowl, for the second  year in a row, Lindley shone bright in the Nashville sky: He caused a fumble, and recorded three pass break-ups.
  • Last season against Louisville, for the second year in a row, Lindley played "hugemongous" (a common theme?): He intercepted a Hunter Cantwell pass, and returned it 24 yards to the U of L two-yard line, in yet another UK victory over the evil Cards.

Considering Lindley's consistently excellent play, it is no shock that this season Trevard Lindley's name appears on every ballot except U. S. Senate: Chuck Bednarik Award (nations best defensive player), Bronko Nagurski Trophy (nations best defensive player), and the Jim Thorpe Award (nations best defensive back).  He was voted preseason First Team All-SEC, and preseason Second Team All-America.  Not one to rest on his laurels, in 2009 Lindley will be expected to ...  

..  lead UK's mixture of experience and youth in the Wildcat secondary.  It's a talented group of players, but Big Blue lost some good ones to graduation --  Safety Marcus McClinton (50 tackles, four interceptions, four pass deflections, and a ton of experience), cornerback David Jones (34 tackles, one interception, five pass break-ups and six deflections), cornerback Robbie McAtee (33 tackles, one sack, one interception, three pass break-ups, and four pass deflections, he also recovered an SEC-best three fumbles), and utility-man Shomari Moore (28 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, one sack, one interception, three pass break-ups, four pass deflections).

That's 145 tackles, 11 pass deflections and break-ups, and three interceptions, but most importantly, over 100 games of combined experience.  Can Kentucky upgrade their pass defense after losing so much?  Here are the guys who will determine the answer to that question:

The Starters

Trevard Lindley -- 6'0", 179 lb senior cornerback: For his career Lindley has accounted for 158 tackles (116 solo tackles), 3.5-tackles for loss, and nine interceptions.  In 2008, Lindley led the SEC in Passes Defended with 11 pass break-ups, and four interceptions.  He also recorded 39 tackles, and 15 pass deflections.  He was voted UK's Team MVP by the players in 2008.

Let's keep this one simple, stupid: Possibly the best cover-corner in UK history.

Paul Warford -- 5'10", 200 lb junior cornerback: Warford redshirted the '08 season after being declared academically ineligible.  But, after taking care of business in the classroom in '08, Warford has returned to the field without skipping a beat.  In his last season of action (2007), Warford was second on the team with nine pass break-ups, and posted a career-high seven tackles versus LSU, a game in which he broke his collarbone late in the contest.  He runs a 4.4 40-yard dash.

Warford is moving up from his safety position to give UK some experience at the cornerback spot opposite Lindley.  He is a physical player who likes to hit, and does a great job in run defense-support.    

Calvin Harrison -- 6'1", 211 lb senior strong safety: Harrison has played behind the departed Marcus McClinton for the last three years.  He has played in 35 games, with six starts to his credit.  Harrison has recorded 80 career tackles.  In '08, he posted 32 tackles, and one tackle for loss.  In a huge Liberty Bowl game, he had five tackles and two pass break-ups.  He started and performed well against Tennessee and Alabama last season.

Harrison provides invaluable experience to UK's secondary.  He, along with Lindley and Warford, allow UK to boast one of the most experienced, accomplished pass defenses in the SEC.

Winston Guy -- 6'1", 208 sophomore free safety: The Lexington Catholic product played in 13 games as a true freshman last year.  He performed mainly with the special teams unit, taking over the kick return duties after Derrick Locke was injured.  He responded with 10 returns for 291 yards (29.1 average), and also set a Kentucky record for longest return without scoring a touchdown, with his 96-yard kick return versus Georgia.  From the free safety spot he recorded 11 tackles.  He was rated a top-30 safety prospect in the nation by Rivals, and the No. 12 safety in the nation by Scout coming out of high school.

Guy brings incredible speed (4.35 40-yard dash), and refined anticipation skills to UK's secondary.  He is a star-in-waiting, and a quarterback nightmare beginning September 5.

The Backups

Martavious Neloms -- 6'1", 180 lb true freshman cornerback: The Tennessee native will be backing-up Lindley.  He was First Team All-State in Class 4A, and only began playing football his junior year at Fairley High School in Memphis.  Despite that, he was rated the No. 30 prospect in in Tennessee by Rivals.

The fact that Neloms has played organized football for only four years, yet has accomplished what he has, is truly astounding.  The ceiling is obviously very high for Neloms, and so far he's not given anyone any reasons to doubt his ever-improving ability.

Randall Burden -- 6'0", 270 lb sophomore cornerback: The LaGrange, Georgia native will be backing-up Paul Warford, and may also see the field as the fifth secondary member in UK's nickel package.  He had a very strong spring, which followed a solid performance in the Liberty Bowl (two pass break-ups, and one tackle).  In '08 Burden appeared in 12 games, contributing four tackles.

The coaches say Burden gets better every day.  His attitude, work ethic, and talent will ensure he sees plenty of reps in '09.

Matt Lentz -- 6'3", 218 lb sophomore strong safety: The former quarterback will back-up Calvin Harrison.  In '08, Lentz played in 13 games, starting five.  He produced 24 tackles, and an interception versus Louisville.  He recorded a career-high seven tackles versus Arkansas.  He runs a 4.55 40-yard dash.  

Lentz performed exceptionally well last year, especially considering the radical position switch he endured.  He brings a combination of size and speed to UK's secondary, and like Burden, he'll see a lot of game-action in '09.

Taiedo Smith -- 6'0", 185 lb sophomore free safety: Smith will back-up Winston Guy.  He began last season playing cornerback, but in an effort to get him on the field the coaches moved him to free safety.  He played seven games, earning the start against Georgia.  He had three tackles and a pass break-up in the win over Mississippi State.

Another young, talented performer, Smith will share back-up duties to Guy with Ashton Cobb (see below).

Ashton Cobb -- 6'0", 215 lb senior free safety: In '08 Cobb played in 11 games, with six starts.  He recorded 37 tackles, and scored on a 28-yard fumble return versus Louisville.  He also recovered a fumble versus Arkansas, and had a career high six tackles against both Georgia and Tennessee.  In 2007, Cobb executed 42 tackles (second among UK's defensive backs).  He's one of the strongest Wildcats pound-for-pound, bench pressing 370 lbs, and squatting 465 lbs.  Yikes!

Cobb has taken a small step back.  Most expected him to start at the free safety spot after last season, but Winston Guy stole his position.  Cobb though, will see "starter's minutes," and will be featured in UK's nickel package at times.

Supplying depth to UK's secondary will be junior cornerback Daryl Faulkner, redshirt freshman cornerback Cartier Rice, sophomore cornerback Anthony Mosley, and sophomore strong safety Greg Wilson

CliffsNotes Analysis

The question was, "Can Kentucky upgrade their defense after losing so much?"  You've met the players, now meet the 2008 stats -- UK recorded 12 interceptions last season, good for seventh in the SEC.  They had 45 pass break-ups and 57 pass deflections, both good numbers, but they allowed 193.2 yards passing per game (ninth in the SEC), and 18 passing touchdowns (only Auburn and Arkansas allowed more).  Overall, UK was ninth in in the SEC in overall Pass Defense, and eighth in the SEC in passing yards allowed with 2,511.

Not great numbers, but they are an improvement over UK's previous, all-too regular occupation of the SEC basement, in the area of defensive play.  But, there still exists much room for bettering the overall defensive performance, and this season the UK coaching staff will be looking to take another step forward.  With Lindley, Warford, and Harrison leading a group of otherwise youthful, but talented performers, Kentucky has an opportunity to leap into the upper-echelon of SEC defensive teams (top-5 or better).  Giving UK the upper-hand in many cases this season will be the relative youth of SEC quarterbacks; other than Tebow, Jevan Snead (Ole Miss),  Stephen Garcia (South Carolina), and Jonathan Crompton (Tennessee), the SEC is littered with untested signal-callers. 

I look for Trevard Lindley to end his UK career with a record-setting season.  His job will be made easier by the fact that he's surrounded by talented, experienced teammates, which will force quarterbacks to have to make unpleasant decisions.  Resulting in the real possibility of having no recourse but to force the ball into their best receivers hands.  But, Lindley will be stalking ...   

For other positional breakdowns: Setting a New Standard  The Linebackers  The Defensive Line

Happy Birthday 

Happy birthday to my mom, Linda.  She turned 29 again yesterday!!

Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!

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