UK secondary: Depth, size are concerns

jsmith3@herald-leader.comAugust 21, 2013 

  • This is the sixth in a series of nine stories analyzing the UK football team position by position. Coming Friday: Defensive line

  • Scouting the secondary

    The main man: The Cats return lots of players who helped out toward the end of the season when their were injuries, but the true star of this unit is junior safety Ashely Lowery, who had 43 tackles (fifth on the team) in eight games last season, including three for a loss. Lowery also had an interception. Coaches still haven't figured out if there will be missed game action for Lowery, who was charged with a DUI after his car accident in early May. His legal situation hasn't been settled.

    The supporting cast: Sophomores Cody Quinn (25 tackles) and Fred Tiller (27 tackles) have shown vast improvement from last season, but Quinn has been sidelined much of the last week of camp with an ankle injury. Several other newcomers have had to step in, including junior college player Nate Willis, who just arrived on campus last week and true freshman Blake McClain, who was a safety to start camp. Jaleel Hytche also has been in the thin rotation. At safety, junior Eric Dixon has seized the other starting spot with Lowery, with Glenn Faulkner and Daron Blaylock getting time in relief.

    Outlook: Some of the unit's biggest problems are based in things it may not be able to fix this season: lack of size and overall depth. But coaches have talked about improved fundamentals and trying to develop some of the younger players into viable options. Stoops has made a living rebuilding secondaries and he has been working with this group heavily during fall camp.

    JEN SMITH

Players and coaches talk about being insulated from the chatter.

They don't hear it when fans criticize them. They don't read the message boards. They ignore Twitter.

But sometimes the criticism is so loud, it can't be ignored.

Sophomore cornerback Fred Tiller definitely heard it last season about players at his position.

"It motivates us to go harder and harder," he said recently. "Last year we were like the worst thing on the team, the secondary was the worst position on the team. This year we're going to try to be the best."

The secondary has a long way to go to get there and few bodies to do so, but coaches are seeing improvement.

Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said there were many issues with the group fundamentally when coaches got on campus, but the basics have gotten better.

"I think that's improved," Eliot said last week. "The secondary's fundamentals are much improved since the spring."

Coach Mark Stoops has done his part. The head coach has specialized in defensive backs since he started coaching at the college level in 1996.

At Fan Day, he spent much of his time working with UK's cornerbacks. He has spent many practice hours trying to get them to improve as a unit.

"Just trying to help out," Stoops said. "Like I said earlier, really all hands on deck. We need a lot of guys and everybody helping all these players get a little bit better."

As Tiller heard and read, they couldn't get much worse.

Kentucky was 58th overall in the nation in pass defense, allowing 229.8 yards a game. Opponents completed 67.3 percent of their passes against the UK defense for 21 touchdowns with just five interceptions.

It was the Cats' issues on third down that were the most eye popping — UK was the worst in the nation, allowing opponents to complete third-down passes 72.5 percent of the time for six touchdowns and a pick.

By contrast, Florida State's pass defense was the best nationally, holding foes to 161.9 yards a game. Opponents completed fewer than 50 percent of their passes overall with 13 scores and 11 interceptions.

They were impressive on third down as well, allowing just four touchdowns while gobbling up four interceptions on third down pass tries. The Seminoles' opponents only converted 46.9 percent of the time, 11th best in the country.

Not all of those numbers have to do with the secondary itself.

"I don't know if there's any one specific area that you can get into detail about what I'm doing with the secondary, but I think a lot of that has to do with the system and what you're doing to put them in a position to be successful," Stoops said.

And UK's secondary is dealing with some issues the staff can't necessarily fix with fundamental drills: size and depth.

"We need to be bigger and more physical," Stoops assessed. "That was something that jumped out at me right away. I think the guys are working hard. Added a little bit of weight and strength in the offseason, but we need to get depth there as well."

UK has been battling the injury bug there as well with sophomore Cody Quinn, who started in six games last season, missing much of the last week of camp with an ankle injury.

The Cats are getting good work so far from Nate Willis, a junior college player, who missed two weeks of camp, as well as freshmen like Jaleel Hytche and Blake McClain, a converted safety.

But there's still lots of work to do, and a short amount of time to do it.


This is the sixth in a series of nine stories analyzing the UK football team position by position. Coming Friday: Defensive line


Scouting the secondary

The main man: The Cats return lots of players who helped out toward the end of the season when their were injuries, but the true star of this unit is junior safety Ashely Lowery, who had 43 tackles (fifth on the team) in eight games last season, including three for a loss. Lowery also had an interception. Coaches still haven't figured out if there will be missed game action for Lowery, who was charged with a DUI after his car accident in early May. His legal situation hasn't been settled.

The supporting cast: Sophomores Cody Quinn (25 tackles) and Fred Tiller (27 tackles) have shown vast improvement from last season, but Quinn has been sidelined much of the last week of camp with an ankle injury. Several other newcomers have had to step in, including junior college player Nate Willis, who just arrived on campus last week and true freshman Blake McClain, who was a safety to start camp. Jaleel Hytche also has been in the thin rotation. At safety, junior Eric Dixon has seized the other starting spot with Lowery, with Glenn Faulkner and Daron Blaylock getting time in relief.

Outlook: Some of the unit's biggest problems are based in things it may not be able to fix this season: lack of size and overall depth. But coaches have talked about improved fundamentals and trying to develop some of the younger players into viable options. Stoops has made a living rebuilding secondaries and he has been working with this group heavily during fall camp.

JEN SMITH

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukwomen.bloginky.com.

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