During the first practice of fall camp, Kentucky safety Mychal Bailey admitted he didn't know what he was doing.
"I felt kind of lost," Bailey said.
That was understandable. After all, Bailey had spent two years in more of a freelancing system at Southwest Mississippi Community College and didn't arrive in Lexington until the week of pre-season camp after taking classes over the summer to get enrolled.
Realistically, most had Bailey pegged for special teams and maybe an occasional backup rep or two at safety.
But Bailey has made a rapid rise up the depth chart and, with the season opener at Louisville less than two weeks away, chances are good that Bailey could be in the starting lineup next to Winston Guy at safety. Bailey worked with the first unit during UK's second fall scrimmage on Saturday, and Coach Joker Phillips said Bailey looked like 'the fastest guy on the field on either side of the ball.'
"It's going to be tough to beat him out because of what he brings to us," Phillips said. "He does a good job of tackling in the open field, and I've said thousands of times, the difference between a good and a great defense is great safety play. He's playing faster than anybody. He gives you a chance to be a great defense if he continues to come up and tackle the way he has."
It's not a surprise that Bailey's speed (he's been timed at 4.37 in the 40-yard dash) and hitting ability have stood out, but nobody expected him to pick up the system quite as fast as he has. He credits private tutoring sessions with Matt Lentz, a former starter at safety who was forced to give up football because of concussions, with speeding up his learning curve.
"Matt has really helped me pick everything up," Bailey said. "If it wasn't for him, I'd still be out there guessing. Now I know when to go cover the post and when to play man. I've come a long way. I feel like I'm pretty good with the schemes right now."
Another rookie is making waves at cornerback. Freshman Jerrell Priester has taken advantage of injuries to projected starter Martavius Neloms and has spent time working with the first-team. Priester is not very big (listed at 5-9, 170) but has impressed the staff with his speed and toughness.
"He's a guy that just understands football," Phillips said. "We think he can be a dynamic player for us."
"When it is a run, he can get off a block and make a tackle; he's not afraid to hit," said UK defensive coordinator Steve Brown, who also coaches cornerbacks. "That makes you more game-ready than some of the other guys."
The Cats are trying to replace perhaps the best cornerback in school history in Trevard Lindley and another veteran starter in Paul Warford. But this could the year that Randall Burden starts to blossom. Burden, a fourth-year junior who has the nickname of 'Birdman' for his skinny 6-foot, 175-pound frame, progressed from a little-used reserve as a redshirt freshman to a 13-game starter last fall. He had two interceptions, including a 50-yard touchdown return against Louisiana-Monroe.
Burden also plans to mentor Priester and UK's other young corners.
"Time is flying," Burden said. "I remember Trevard and those guys doing their things in the games. Now it's my turn to do my thing and help the young guys that come after me. This year, I'll be even better than the last couple years. I'm expecting a pretty good season."
Neloms and Cartier Rice, both sophomores, give UK two more corners with game experience, and junior Anthony Mosley, a converted wide receiver, has been coming on in practice.
Neloms got a baptism by fire as a true freshman last year. He was victimized by South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery (138 receiving yards, three TDs) while Lindley and Warford were on the sidelines with injuries. Burden also had a rough day against the Gamecocks, but Phillips said that experience paid dividends for both.
"(Burden) is playing against two quality guys at receiver in practice every day in Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews, and he's winning his share," Phillips said. "At corner, that's what you have to do. You're not going to win every battle, but just win your share."