It seemed odd to hear that Kentucky’s coaches were pondering a position switch this season for a player who earned All-Southeastern Conference honors last season.
But that’s exactly the direction they’re heading.
Junior Mike Edwards is on the move, but he’s not going too far.
The safety, who led SEC defensive backs in tackles last season with 100, probably will see some significant time at the Cats’ nickel back spot this season.
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It was a shift that made perfect sense to Coach Mark Stoops.
“The closer you get to the line of scrimmage, the faster things happen, and Mike has such good instincts,” he told the Herald-Leader.
“He can cover; he can blitz,” Stoops said. “And so he’s really good at that position, and that position can get some action. So he’s good there and we’ve got to get some guys behind him.”
Playing as many spread offenses as it does during the season, Kentucky has leaned heavily on schemes with five defensive backs.
Stoops guessed that UK was in the nickel a little more than 50 percent of the time last year.
And he loves the idea of having Edwards in that role.
So does defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale, who said he couldn’t imagine a player who could be a better fit at that spot than Edwards.
“He’s got great instincts, great vision, has a good feel for what’s coming to him and what’s going away,” Clinkscale said. “When you play man (defense), he’s got great man skills. So he’s a great fit for that position. An ideal person for that position.”
Edwards, whose three interceptions last season were tied for most on the team, is excited about some time at a new spot, too. It was a position long held by Blake McClain, who graduated.
“It makes me more versatile. I can get in the box a little bit and blitz,” said Edwards, who has just half a sack and 7.5 tackles for loss in his career. “I really enjoy blitzing; we get to blitz a lot and being able to run fit and cover a guy, cover the slot, that’s a pretty good fit for me.”
But to get Edwards to this new spot, the coaches also had to find players who could fit in around him, including at his safety spot.
What they’ve found is a group that’s incredibly versatile. Edwards isn’t alone in his ability to play multiple spots in the secondary.
Senior Kendall Randolph, who is still getting back from offseason surgery, can play the nickel, corner or safety spots. Sophomore Jordan Griffin is working at all three positions, Stoops said.
“It’s very helpful, beneficial,” the head coach said. “You’ve got some guys who are interchangeable there.”
That versatility will be key for Kentucky’s secondary moving forward, too.
“Somebody gets banged up, you can fill the spot right in,” Edwards said. “It’s very efficient for all of us, being there, understanding each other’s positions. … It’s pretty good having that.”
It will keep opposing offenses guessing, cornerback Derrick Baity predicted.
“That really can confuse an offense because if our starting safety is now at nickel, then they’re thinking is he at safety, is he in the box?” Baity said. “They’re thinking maybe he’s blitzing or is he covering, but really, he’s doing something different, so it can really confuse them.”
Being able to rotate so many different guys in at the nickel, safety and even cornerback spots will keep players fresh, said Clinkscale, noting that he doesn’t want a situation like last season where Edwards was playing “100 snaps a game for the first five games. We’ve got to spare him so he can play a whole season at a high level.”
While the base defense is set and ready to go, there likely still will be some shifting at those other spots in the secondary. The players have embraced the changes.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to put all the guys in position to help us win football games,” Clinkscale said. “If that’s Mike at nickel or safety, we’re going to go with whichever one helps us play our best defense. What I’m trying to do right now is move some guys around, so who has the natural fit for it and then build off of that.”
Scouting the Cats
This is the first of nine stories looking at the 2017 Kentucky football team position by position.
Scouting the defensive backs
The main man: Junior Mike Edwards led Southeastern Conference defensive backs in tackles last season with 100 to go with his three interceptions and eight pass breakups. He was second on the team and seventh in the league in tackles per game at 7.7. The 6-foot junior from Cincinnati is extremely versatile and could see time at safety or nickel for the Cats this season.
The supporting cast: Edwards has plenty of help and plenty of versatility all around him, including multi-year starters at cornerback in Chris Westry (43 tackles, one pick) and Derrick Baity (42 tackles, three picks). The Cats also return strong safety Darius West, who missed last season with another leg injury. Other options include sophomore Jordan Griffin, who has been getting high praise this preseason, and senior Kendall Randolph. Two newcomers in redshirt freshman Davonte Robinson and a junior-college transfer in Lonnie Johnson could help right away.
Outlook: Kentucky returns much of its firepower in the secondary, including three starters on a team that ranked fifth in the league in pass defense. But the Cats lost a lot of institutional knowledge and versatility with the graduation of players like Blake McClain, Marcus McWilson and J.D. Harmon. Players like Baity and Westry have expressed disappointment with their overall performance last season and say they want to be more of a lockdown tandem this year. The coaches think they have a lot of younger talent like true freshmen Yusuf Corker, Tyrell Ajian, Cedrick Dort and Michael Nesbitt, but it’s still unclear where they will fit into the rotation. “They’re still adjusting,” secondary coach Steve Clinkscale said. “Every day, practices are long and grindy, they’re going full speed every rep. It’s not like high school where they can take a couple plays off and do nothing. Every play is a competitive play and I think that’s the biggest difference for them.”