UK football: The secret to Blake McClain's versatility? He does his homework

jsmith3@herald-leader.comAugust 11, 2014 

Blake McClain probably wakes up with imprints of the Kentucky playbook on his face.

It tucks the sophomore defender in regularly.

"Every night before I hit my head on the bed, I'm looking at my playbook," he said on Monday after UK's practice.

It's a good thing he knows the ins and outs of the Kentucky defense, because it may lead him right back where he started: playing one of the safety spots.

McClain, who played safety early last season before starting the final 11 games of the year at nickelback, was rotated in at safety the past two practices, likely making up for a lack of depth at that spot with the season-ending injury of Darius West.

"I haven't had a lot of meetings with safeties, so two days ago, they put me at free safety, and I'd been playing some strong," he said.

Safeties coach Craig Naivar pulled aside McClain, UK's third-leading tackler last season with 59, and told him he'd walk him through it.

"Coach Naivar was like, 'I'll just be back there behind you, telling you what to do,'" he said. "Until I learn it, it's mostly learning on the run. When I go to a new position, I just try to learn it on the run. So I just keep living in my playbook."

And sleeping with it.

In the same way they touted McClain last season, UK's defensive coaches have been singing the praises of true freshman Kendall Randolph, a freshman from Tallahassee, Fla.

"I'm very impressed with him," head coach Mark Stoops said of the four-star prospect at Media Day last week. "He's a guy that we thought all along that was a little bit like Blake McClain, and he is. He's all that."

Randolph's impact might be so immediate that McClain will be on the move again to a position of need for UK.

In just one season so far, McClain has played at field corner, boundary corner, free safety, strong safety, nickel back and even linebacker at a listed 194 pounds.

"Blake has been just like, always very consistent and very versatile," Eliot said. "We're moving him around. He gives us the option some to play him at safety if Kendall can take the nickel position. We'll just keep looking at options to get the best 11 on the field."

It's all in a day's — and night's — work for McClain.

"I believe in what I can do," he said on Monday. "Like I told the coaches, 'I'll play wherever you need me, if it's middle linebacker, I'll go in there in the trenches. ... They feel like they trust me at nickel, corner, safety, wherever they want to put me, I'll play.'"

Practice notes

Stoops opened up practice on Monday morning. Here are a few observations:

■ Much like Saturday's Fan Day, several key players were sidelined again on both sides of the ball, including the Cats' leading wide receiver and running back from last season in Javess Blue and Jojo Kemp.

Others watching without pads today included defensive end Jason Hatcher, wide receiver Garrett Johnson (finger), offensive linemen Jordan Swindle and Josh Krok,

■ If there's one plus to Krok being out, the 6-foot-8, 300-pound freshman spent nearly the entire practice shadowing Swindle, who was pointing to things and breaking down plays for him.

■ In individual position drills, Stoops worked with the secondary on locating the high point of the ball, which involved the head coach throwing balls into the air. (He will not be part of the quarterback competition.)

Senior safety Eric Dixon said the guys like to make fun of bad throws by their coach. "He was just warming up, hopefully, because the ball wasn't going that far."

The drills must be working. McClain said after practice that the Cats' defense has recorded nine interceptions in the first week of fall camp. If true, that would be three times the number it recorded all of last season.

■ The quarterbacks continued to show why the competition is still ongoing. Until a starter is named, the players are rotating and Monday was a day for Patrick Towles and Drew Barker, who both did some good and bad things.

Stoops said part of that is the defense. "Defensively we're a little bit ahead right now," he said. "We're throwing a lot at them, and you can see we're confusing the quarterback a little bit. Need to continue to clean it up, have some guys step up and make plays on the football when we have opportunities."

On one series, Towles overthrew Ryan Timmons, then was picked off by J.D. Harmon (who had a strong day on Monday). Then Barker had a pass knocked to the ground by a defensive lineman.

After the pick, which Harmon took back for a score, offensive coordinator Neal Brown was all over wideout Rashad Cunningham: "You've gotta be ready to go every time. That pick's on you."

Although far from perfect, Barker seemed the most consistent passer on Monday, including throwing a nice ball deep into the corner of the end zone, which Blake Bone caught while nearly horizontal.

 Several balls were batted down at the line of scrimmage today, which Stoops said has been a big emphasis for UK, but the head coach said it's not entirely on the offense.

"They're not cutting right now. So on the quick game, they'll try to cut us and chop us and get the hands down, but regardless we need to continue to work on that."

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

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