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2016 Position Preview: Defensive Backs

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The secondary will be the strength of the defense - just don't overhype them.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The secondary is widely considered to be the strength of the defense largely based on their performances last fall. The view is reinforced by statements made by Kentucky's coaches themselves. The unit returns its starting boundary corner, nickel back, field corner, and has three different safeties that saw lots of snaps last season. The starters heading into camp are comprised of four sophomores and a senior. Mark Stoops has arguably recruited defensive backs better than any other position, and their ranks swell with talent. The results have been noticeable.

Last season, the unit was impressive given the youth at many positions. Below is the same table I used last preseason to measure the returning defensive backs:

Metric Number SEC Ranking
Passing Defense 198 yards/game 5/14
Pass Plays Over 10 Yards
93 5/14
Passes Defended 59 8/14
Interceptions 11 9/14

The secondary displayed improvements over the same 2014 metrics when the secondary was ranked seventh in each of the four categories above. Total interceptions and passes defended fell, but there was more youth. UK benched seniors Cody Quinn and Fred Tiller, experienced an inconsistent year with AJ Stamps, and still improved in terms of routine plays if not turnovers forced. Not bad in an increasingly pass-happy conference.

Below is how the secondary fared against the best statistical receivers they faced. It's a bit of a mixed bag that has some marginal successes, but there's no consistency. Not unusual for a young secondary with promise, but still a far ways from being elite.

Name Overall SEC Rank Rec./game vs. UK Yards/game vs. UK
Pharoh Cooper (SCAR) 2 5.5 9 81.1 100
Fred Ross (MSU) 4 6.8 2 77.6 11
De'Runnya Wilson (MSU) 6 4.6 4 70.6 91
Malcom Mitchell (UGA) 8 4.5 4 65.5 52
Ricardo Louis (Auburn) 13 3.5 7 55.1 154
Trent Sherfield (Vandy) 14 4.3 3 54.9 51
Jamari Staples (UofL) N/A (4th in ACC) 3.7 1 63.8 11

This season, the secondary will probably face tougher competition. They'll see Fred Ross again when Mississippi State travels to Lexington, and they'll be tested by Alabama's talented receiving corps led by all-world Calvin Ridley. Tennessee, Louisville, and Florida will all have dangerous receivers this season. On top of that, most of the teams UK plays will have accurate quarterbacks which can make pedestrian receivers great, and great receivers elite when given time to throw (and we've already discussed the worries of UK's pass-rush).

The secondary will probably be better this season, but it may not be blindingly obvious given the uptick in their competition. There's a chance, unlikely though it is, that there's a regression in stats if not play.

This unit has shown promise, but to date it's only promise that they've shown. In 2016, they need to build upon their foundation and buy time for the front seven to gel. They'll need to do their part on third downs, and make tackles in open space. Winning 50-50 balls is an imperative. They must force more turnovers this season.

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 and here. This is another way Kentucky's defensive versatility, and recruiting, effects scheme as written previously.

Another interesting development is the increasing size of defensive backs. Only a few years ago media guides across the country were littered with defensive backs under six feet tall. Most of the short defensive backs now are playing outside the P5. Tall cornerbacks that can't easily be out-jumped or out-bullied by taller receivers, and so are en vogue. UK has recently signed a slew, and it doesn't appear like there's any going back.

Depth Chart Discussion

Safety
Depth Chart Name Position 2015 Season Stats
1 Mike Edwards (SO) SS 39 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 2 TFL
1 Blake McClain (SR) FS 31 tackles, 5 PBU, 1 TFL
2 Marcus McWilson (SR) SS 66 tackles, 2 PBU, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack
2 Darius West (SO) FS 17 tackles

Mike Edwards was impressive last season as a true freshman. He began to fill in for the inconsistent AJ Stamps towards the end of 2015, and made the most of his opportunity with his solid tackling and cover skills. The fact he moved positions and then promptly beat out last year's starting strong safety Marcus McWilson, who was fourth on the team in tackles in 2015, after spring practice says his off-season development has continued.

McWilson will still see playing time this season. A defensive wrinkle UK has shown at times is to move McWilson closer to the line of scrimmage and spy the quarterback or blitz off the edge. These are abilities Edwards is probably also capable of producing. Aside from four year starter at nickel Blake McClain, all the players listed above were consensus four stars coming out of high school.

Cornerback
Depth Chart Name Position 2015 Season Stats
1 Chris Westry (SO) Boundary Corner 36 tackles, 3 INT, 8 PBU, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack
1 Derrick Baity (SO) Field Corner 19 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 PBU
2 JD Harmon (SR) Boundary Corner 28 tackles, 3 INT, 2 PBU
2 Kendall Randolph (JR) Field Corner 11 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 PBU

Christ Westry and JD Harmon make formidable boundary corners. Their position is one of the more difficult in football, as they are typically matched up against the other teams best receiver. They will get tested, and Westry's eight pass break-ups in 2015 signify the true freshman was tested quite often. Harmon probably doesn't get the attention he deserves. He is one of the best walk-on's Kentucky has had in a very long time in terms of defensive and special teams play.

Baity saw his playing time increase as the season progressed, and the coaches began to play him over senior Cody Quinn. Like Harmon and Westry, Baity is tall with long arms and not easily pushed around by physical wideouts. A strong off-season building his body and technique will see him receive an increased level of attention.

Nickel
Depth Chart Name Position 2015 Season Stats
1 Blake McClain (SR) NB/FS 31 tackles, 5 PBU, 1 TFL
2 Kendall Randolph (JR) NB/Field Corner 11 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 PBU

McClain has been one of UK's most consistent players for the last three seasons. He was Joker's second highest-rated commitment in his last class, and started Day One as Mark Stoops' nickel back. He's also been listed as a second string safety for the last three off-seasons.

His back-up Randolph is another former four star recruit in UK's secondary.  Nickel back is an important position that returns its two-deep for the third year in a row. Both players are capable of playing in the box to outnumber offenses, blitz off the edge, or cover slot receivers.

That doesn't mean both aren't a bit undersized or have no room for improvement. Let's focus on McClain for example. Here against Tennessee in 2014, he has the quarterback sack after Dupree essentially forced a triple team, but he couldn't make the tackle:

Those are the type of plays both upperclassmen will have to make in 2016. Stoops likes to blitz his nickels since they are usually aligned over slot receivers and thereby closer to the quarterback. They need to combine for eight tackles for loss in 2016 to make up for UK's deficiencies in the front seven. Throwing in a total of four sacks would be nice too if they're taking requests.

Outlook

Last preseason, I expected UK's secondary to be a borderline top five unit in the SEC, and they would go on to achieve that despite benching three seniors in exchange for three first year players. That's fairly impressive, and they'll be heavily relied upon to replicate those successes.

This unit is a clear and present example of what happens when talented players are matched with talented coaching.

At the end of the day, there's no better representation of Mark Stoops' recruiting than this unit. He's signed talented athletes, and his decades spent as a secondary position coach have lured talented up-and-coming position coaches who in turn have developed these players. This unit is a clear and present example of what happens when talented players are matched with talented coaching.

This group will be the strength of the defense, but given their youth, shouldn't be mistaken as saviors. Luckily, the schedule is relatively kind in September, and they'll be able to shake the cobwebs as they face better receivers and quarterbacks later in the season when they'll need to be saviors for UK to have a chance to pull upsets.