With a smirk and a smile, Kentucky’s head coach explains how he keeps a veteran secondary motivated to improve.
“With my foot,” laughed Mark Stoops, a former safety himself and a career secondary coach.
Sure, that’s part of it, but Steve Clinkscale, UK’s coach for cornerbacks and safeties has a more comprehensive plan to motivate players like Chris Westry, who has started every game at corner since he arrived on campus two seasons ago.
Or fellow corner Derrick Baity with his 17 career starts or safety Mike Edwards, who was the leading tackler last season among Southeastern Conference defensive backs with 100.
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How do you motivate players like that who feel like they’ve seen it all and done it all already in the league?
Clinkscale showed them film of the best players in the NFL. He showed them players in their position group at the NFL Combine a few weeks ago.
“It’s not hard to convince them,” Clinkscale said. “Watch the combine, look at all the defensive backs out there who are long and fast and look how many there are. Some of these guys aren’t going to get drafted as high.
“You always try to show them you’re not just competing with the guys on the field, you’re competing with yourself and those guys throughout the country.”
It’s sinking in, Baity said: “He’s showing us that the particulars matter.”
Even if those top players, and returning safety Darius West who is back from a knee injury, feel like they can do the drills in their sleep and teach the fundamentals to a room of kindergarteners, there’s still more to do.
“Even though I’ve got an older group, we still can improve communication, getting lined up, urgency, focus, definitely the focus aspect and finishing,” Clinkscale said.
Finishing has been a big deal this spring for the group that finished fifth in the SEC in pass defense, allowing just 206.1 yards per game in the air.
Take interceptions for instance. Kentucky had 13 last season, up two from the season before. But the coaches think they’re capable of many more.
In spring practice, “even if we make an interception, they say, ‘Line up. Do it again. That’s what you’re supposed to do,’” Baity said with a grin. “They never let us get a big head. They always tell us there’s something to work on.”
It also helps that there’s more competition at those position groups, Clinkscale said of the Cats’ secondary, which lost two versatile role players in Blake McClain and Marcus McWilson, but also returns Kendall Randolph. Although it was announced on Saturday that ankle surgery will sideline the senior for the rest of the spring.
And then there’s a group of young players who came in last season that are making a push, especially cornerback Jordan Griffin and safety Davonte Robinson. Others like Marcus Walker, Tobias Gilliam and junior college transfer Lonnie Johnson are making bids for playing time.
“The biggest thing about this spring that’s been different is there’s competition at every position,” Clinkscale said. “So there’s nobody who’s sitting around thinking he’s got it made because everybody’s pushing the guy in front of him.”
It likely means Stoops’ foot will get less of a workout, sarcastically kicking the back sides of Kentucky’s junior leaders in the secondary.
It’s not something he’s been too worried about this spring when he’s already seeing growth from that group.
“That’s never an issue keeping those guys on their toes,” Stoops said. “That’s a hard position. You can’t ever get comfortable in the secondary. You’ve got to play with a chip on your shoulder, with an edge. You can’t get complacent at all. We’re trying to get them better and take it to another level.”
With less than two weeks to go before the Blue-White Spring Game, Stoops seemed optimistic from what he saw in the second spring scrimmage at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday.
“We’re making a lot of progress this spring,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate because we haven’t had any major injuries, but we’ve been playing very physical. Good day today.”
The coach would like to see Kentucky’s run defense continue to improve, but said he saw signs of progress. And on the other side of that argument is how well UK’s offense is running the ball.
“If you can be a good run defense team against our offense, you know you’re making progress,” Stoops said. “There were some moments where the scrimmage went both ways. I thought the offense was very efficient at times, but I thought the defense stepped up and made some plays and is making some progress.”
As for the offensive side of the ball, Eddie Gran liked UK’s efficiency this week and saw fewer penalties overall. “We were a little bit more focused than we were last week, and we looked like we ran the ball a little bit better,” the offensive coordinator said.
▪ Short secondary: Senior nickelback Kendall Randolph had surgery on his injured ankle and will miss the rest of spring, Stoops confirmed on Saturday. Randolph had lingering effects of a high ankle sprain, which slowed him much of last season. Doctors decided to do the surgery this spring, get a screw in to stabilize the ankle and have Randolph ready for fall camp.
Junior college transfer Lonnie Johnson didn’t play while battling through a hamstring issue. So the Cats have less depth in the secondary right now. Edwards has been filling in at nickel as well as Griffin.
▪ Barker improving: Bouncing back from back surgery in November, UK quarterback Drew Barker was able to play about 10 plays and led the offense down the field for a touchdown, the coaches said.
Barker seemed comfortable tucking the ball and running with it as well, Gran said. Coaches seemed surprised by the junior’s progress.
“He looked a little more comfortable than I thought he might in a game-like situation,” Stoops said. “I thought he looked good.”
▪ Names to know: On the offensive side of the ball, Gran mentioned that several wide receivers made strong, contested catches like Kayaune Ross, Tavin Richardson “big-time play over on the sideline.” Blake Bone had a long grab. Stoops could only recall one drop from that wide out group. He was pleased with some plays by Garrett Johnson and Charles Walker, but is still looking for someone to step up outside and make explosive plays… Sihiem King caught a touchdown pass and ran for another short one. … A.J. Rose had a long, impressive run, Gran said. “It was good to see him pop through there and see his speed. I was pleased with those young guys, the guys that we’ve got to get those yards from. I think they’re on the right track.” …
On defense, Matt House was pleased with Eli Brown, who had a couple tackles for loss, as well as Kengera Daniel. Brown, who plays behind Jordan Jones at the weakside linebacker spot, said he’s doing what he can to get noticed. “Like I tell everybody, I’m not here to be a two. I’m trying to be a one,” he said.
Red zone alterations?
One of the dramatic improvements that Gran and co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw made between their first and second seasons at Cincinnati was in the red zone.
In the first season, the Bearcats were No. 113 nationally in red zone conversions in season one and moved up to No. 16 overall in season two after making it a point of emphasis.
Part of the dramatic improvement came because they found ways to throw it more when they got within the 30-yard line, Hinshaw told the Herald-Leader this summer.
“It really put pressure on the defense as soon as we’d get in the red zone instead of staying in wildcat or continuing to run the ball,” he explained.
Throwing more in the red zone seems to be something the two are looking at for Kentucky this coming season as well.
“I’m seeing a lot of that,” tight ends coach Vince Marrow said after a mini scrimmage on Tuesday. “Today I think tight ends scored 2-3 times in the red zone today.”
Wide receivers have been really focused on making plays close to the goal line, Lamar Thomas said this week.
“We did a lot of great things in the red zone,” the wide outs coach said. “We put a lot of stuff in today. I was very proud. I told the guys afterward I was very proud of their learning curve. … When they got out there, it wasn’t too much teaching because they mentally were focused on what they had to do.”