It's worth taking the time to reflect on the secondary's performance last season. We should look ahead, this is a preview after all, but it's important to establish a clarified baseline heading into 2015. There's a segment of BBN that thinks the defensive backs, specifically the cornerbacks, were the biggest problem with the defense last season. This is patently false, and I will bite my thumb at you, sir/ma'am, if you disagree.
Many of UK's bloggers, media, literati, and casual alike fans have constructed this narrative, perpetuated this fable, and built an echo chamber on a foundation of lies. Lies! I'm not going to try and sell you on the idea that the secondary played great, but there's a vast chasm between "great" and "the biggest problem with the defense". Casual fans should be excused, but the punditry should be embarrassed.
By nature, the defensive back positions lend themselves to various cognitive biases largely because their failures are so high profile; meanwhile, when they do their jobs it often goes unnoticed. Defensive backs get taken for granted just like garbage men, field workers, and janitors. It's not until they fail to perform their duties, and their inaction impact our lives, do they get noticed for the most part.
Taking the time to look at the raw data (the advanced stats are just as kind prior to the last two games) would have prevented the off-season scape-goating, but broad-brushing with unambiguous conclusions is what we've come to accept from our punditry. Nuance and a bit of research, on the other hand, are an anathema. BBN deserves a better class of pundit, and I'm going to give it to 'em (this one time):
|Passing Defense||2,589 yards||8/14|
Pass Plays Over 10 Yards
|Passes Defended||62 passes||7/14|
Perfectly average in four pass defense specific metrics in "the toughest conference in America", and in fact not the disaster many made them out to be. One need only look at the various rush measurements to see who exactly under-performed on the defense. Furthermore, these numbers are better than 2013, especially in terms of passes defended and interceptions when UK was dead last in the conference for both. The secondary improved in 2014.
Hopefully I've still got your attention because now we're going to zoom-in a bit further. UK faced some very good receivers last season. In fact, UK faced three receivers that ended the season in the SEC top five in terms of reception yards per game. They also faced DeVante Parker who was the third receiver selected in the NFL Draft and the 14th selection overall. With two exceptions, UK was able to keep the best receivers the team faced below their season averages in terms of receiving yards per game:
|Name||Overall SEC Rank||Rec./game||vs. UK||Yards/game||vs. UK|
|Pharoh Cooper (SCAR)||2||5.3||6||87.4||83|
|Bud Sasser (MIZZOU)||4||5.5||6||71.6||67|
|Demarcus Robinson (UF)||5||4.4||15||67.5||216|
|Travin Dural (LSU)||8||2.8||2||58.3||39|
|De'Runnya Wilson (MSU)||11||3.9||2||56.7||30|
|Pig Howard (UT)||17||4.2||4||47.5||43|
|DeVante Parker (UofL)||N/A||6.1||6||122.1||180|
It's almost as if UK's head coach spent a 14 years as a defensive back coach, and so would ensure that position had i) a good position coach and ii) take player development at this specific position personally.
Clarified baseline established? Let's move on.
Modern Secondary Play
The requirements of the modern secondary have increased along with that of the linebackers. Defenses have always needed corners who can cover and tackle in space, but increasingly defenses need more than just their corners to be adept at coverage. Safeties and nickels also need those skills as offenses are putting more play-makers on the field; meanwhile, safeties and nickels are increasingly used as hybrid linebackers. SB Nation's Ian Boyd does a fantastic job breaking that down in further detail here. This is another way Kentucky's defensive versatility, and recruiting, effects scheme as I wrote last summer.
|Projected Depth Chart||Name||Projected Position||2014 Season Stats|
|1||AJ Stamps (SR)||SS||56 tackles, 4 INT, 5 PBU|
|1||Marcus McWilson (JR)||FS||31 tackles, 2 TFL, 3 INT, 1 PBU|
|2||Darius West (RS FR)||SS||N/A|
|2||Mike Edwards (RS FR)||FS||N/A|
AJ Stamps returns and is arguably UK's best player. Stamps made an immediate impact in his first season - rare for a JUCO transfer. Stamps has many skills which is part of what makes him such a good player. He's adept in coverage, is vocal, and has great ball skills. He's also able to play in the box, and provide run support. Not only because he's hard-hitter, but because he's able to diagnose between the run or pass very quickly. It's hard while watching TV to see where Stamps aligned regularly, but UK looked to interchange him with Lowery and McWilson on occasion during the season. Further testament to his diverse skill set. It will be interesting to see if that scheme continues this season, or if players seemingly settle into more defined roles.
Stamps will likely be joined by McWilson who started to take over the starting role for Ashely Lowery towards the end of last season. McWilson was one of Stoops first big commitments. His improvement showed as the 2014 season progressed, and a player who many speculated would eventually make the move to linebacker after hisfirst season now looks poised to start at safety. Further evidence judgement should be withheld on freshmen.
West and Edwards (as well as starting nickel Blake McClain) will provide back-up. These are two other highly-rated defensive backs recruited by UK, but little is known about their development since they signed. It's a long season and they will be called upon. That's all that can reasonably be said in July.
|Projected Depth Chart||Name||Projected Position||2014 Season Stats|
|1||Fred Tiller (SR)||Boundary Corner||2 INT, 46 tackles, 1 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 9 PBU|
|1||Cody Quinn (SR)||Field Corner||35 tackles, 5 PBU|
|2||JD Harmon (JR)||Boundary Corner||29 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 FF|
|2||Jaleel Hytche (JR)||Field Corner||N/A|
UK returns experienced cornerbacks who have been battle-tested for the last three seasons. Every season it's speculated that Tiller and Quinn will be relegated to the bench, and every season they end up starting and proving the chattering classes wrong. They are survivors who have both improved statistically since 2012. I said my peace about Tiller back in May, but I would like to point out that as the boundary corner he was the player who regularly drew the assignments against the SEC's best receivers listed above. He kept most of them below their season average, and as a result he was in the top ten in the SEC in terms of passes defended.
Cody Quinn has also held off the competition to keep his starting spot. His stats aren't impressive, but 5 pass break-ups also means he was close to 5 interceptions. This play is illustrative of his ability (the replay that follows gives a better angle so wait for it). UK is in man coverage which makes sense given it's 3rd-and-3. The pass rush is strong enough to force South Carolina to improvise, which complicates coverage sometimes. The receiver cuts back, Quinn quickly feels it, closes while a well-thrown ball is in the air, and deflects the ball with his outside arm. This was a great play, and shows what the senior is capable of doing.
Harmon was second string last season, while Hytche seemed stuck behind graduated Nate Willis. Harmon played well, especially early in the season. He distinguished himself on special teams the first half of the season as well. He has good size for a corner, and has already exceeded the production of most walk-ons. He and Hytche both need to be better this season, so they can reliably fill-in for the starters. If not, there will be talented redshirt freshmen and true freshmen nipping at their heels.
|Projected Depth Chart||Name||Position||2014 Season Stats|
|1||Blake McClain (JR)||NB/FS||28 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 sacks, 6 PBU|
|2||Kendall Randolph (SO)||NB/Boundary Corner||16 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack, 1 PBU, 1 FF|
The nickel position looks to be set with two-year starter McClain backed up by Randolph who proved himself capable last season as a true freshmen. Both are capable of playing in the box to outnumber offenses, blitz off the edge, or cover slot receivers. That doesn't mean both can't improve. Let's focus on McClain for example. Here against Tennessee he has the quarterback sack after Dupree essentially forced a triple team, but he couldn't make the tackle:
It's not that McClain isn't capable of making that play. Here against Florida he lines up over the slot receiver, and covers even more ground, and nearly disrupts the play (great job by Driskel to stay in the pocket). What he needs to improve upon is tackling athletic quarterbacks in the backfield, especially because last season I charted UK blitzing their nickels 18% of all blitzes over the course of the season. This is a weapon the coaches want to unsheathe, and it'll be even more important this season with pass-rushers by committee.
I suspect both players will be options at other positions in the secondary. If Hytche isn't cutting it, I wouldn't be surprised to see Randolph replace him, for example. If McWilson or Edwards aren't doing their jobs at free safety, I suspect McClain will be moved to that position with Randolph taking his primary duties. More options are theoretically good for competition and subsequently individual improvement.
Note On The Rookies
There are some exciting prospects in the underclassmen ranks who play in the secondary, but it will be hard for them to see playing time. The 2015 class has some great size, but like most freshmen will be inhibited by a lack of fundamentals, the speed of the game, and the complexity of the scheme. It's unlikely they contribute early in the season since their competition are grizzled veterans. If they do see the field, I think it'll be because there's been reshuffing at the safety position; like, McClain makes the full-time move there, and Derrick Baity backs up Randolph at nickel. Although, another scenario is Jared Tucker supplanting Hytche as Quinn's primary back-up at corner.
This unit features three seniors, two of which are three year starters, and one of which will be drafted next year. Last year their collective performance was roughly average statistically. They have a well-regarded position coach, and a head coach with a personal interest in the position, overlooking their development. If they slack off at any minute, there's enough talent in the ranks to legitimately threaten their starting jobs for the first time in recent memory.
The odds are good this unit will have improved in the off-season, and the defense will need them to be better. UK's defense won't have Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith folding pockets this season, and while that's not to say UK won't generate pressure, but the more blitzing required the more these veterans will be left on islands.
This group won't be the SEC's best secondary - that honor almost certainly will go to LSU or Florida - but I don't see any reason they can't compete for a borderline top five ranking this season.