Kentucky cornerbacks Randall Burden and Martavius Neloms got a chance to see South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery's spectacular one-handed catch that helped the Gamecocks knock off No. 1 Alabama on Saturday.
That wasn't the first time Burden and Neloms saw Jeffery perform such a feat.
Last season, Jeffery, then a true freshman, had his coming-out party against the young UK secondary, catching seven passes for 138 yards and three scores. Included in that total was a leaping one-handed grab over Burden in the end zone for a 28-yard touchdown.
After watching Jeffery beat Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick for the 45-yard reception that helped the Gamecocks wrap up the signature win, Burden has just one goal for his rematch with the super sophomore Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium.
"Just don't let it happen to me in the game again this year," Burden said.
That figures to be easier said than done. Jeffery, who goes 6-foot-4, 233 pounds, leads the SEC in receptions (6.8) and receiving yards (125.0) per game.
"He's killing everybody right now," UK defensive coordinator Steve Brown said. "Alabama's got a talented secondary and he killed them."
Burden and Neloms didn't get to face Jeffery under the most ideal circumstances last season. Starting cornerbacks Trevard Lindley and Paul Warford were out with injuries. Neloms, a true freshman at the time, was making his first career start and Burden was in his first season as a full-time starter.
Now a year older, both players believe they're better equipped to deal with Jeffery.
"Me and Martavius, we were just thrown into the fire last year and really didn't know what to expect," Burden said. "Now we know what to expect and we're going to try and redeem ourselves for what happened last year."
"Now I've got a few games under my belt so I think I'll be ready," Neloms said. "Plus I'm a lot better than I was last year."
At 6-foot-1 and 184 pounds, Neloms might be the most physically equipped to match up with Jeffery. While Neloms is still developing his cover skills, he's been a bone-jarring tackler through UK's first six games. He has 24 tackles — fifth on the team — and he forced two fumbles last week against Auburn.
"That's what I really excel at, tackling," Neloms said. "I'm getting better in my coverage, but tackling is something I really like to do."
Neloms and Burden were in good position on several of Jeffery's big plays last year. But their inexperience showed once Jeffery went up in the air, as both players failed to locate and make a play on the ball.
"We just didn't want to get beat," Burden said. "If you turn around, a lot of times you can get beat. The hardest thing for a corner is trying to run and look for the ball, because one peek can let the receiver get a lot of separation from you. (Quarterback Stephen) Garcia was really just throwing the ball up, and (Jeffery) was making great plays on it. You've just got to find the ball when it's in the air, focus on the ball, and if you can't get it, at least try to knock it down. The more you play, the easier it comes."
UK Coach Joker Phillips knows all about Jeffery because he tried to recruit him out of Calhoun County High School in St. Matthews, S.C. He used basketball analogies when discussing Jeffery's strengths.
"He's a great rebounder," Phillips said. "He is a guy that probably will have a lot of confidence in this game because this is where he really had his breakout game, against us last year. He is a good post player. After he posts you up, he's so strong and physical that he can shove you to the ground and make a huge play. Last year we were in great position; we just did not make the play. We've just got to be more physical with him."
The South Carolina receiving corps is full of big targets to complement Jeffery, including Tori Gurley (6-5, 230), Bowling Green native D.L. Moore (6-4, 211) and Jason Barnes (6-4).
"They've got a bunch of big guys," Brown said. "They really present you some serious matchup problems."
One thing that could help the UK corners is Brown mixing coverages to give Garcia some different looks.
"Stopping Garcia has a lot to do with stopping (Jeffery)," he said. "You have to try and confuse the quarterback, pressure him, and get people in his face. From there you just have to be in the right position. (Garcia) will just throw fades to try and get it to him, and we are going to have to cover. And we have to be able to recognize formations. If (Garcia) is under center, you have to think quick pass and be ready to rock and roll. We just have to be in position and see what happens."
While Kentucky has let some receivers run free this season, they still lead the Southeastern Conference in pass defense (153.2 yards per game) and have given up just six touchdowns. We'll probably find out if those numbers are for real this week.
Along those lines, Neloms said he's anxious for another shot at Jeffery.
"Don't get me wrong, he's a great receiver," Neloms said. "But I think he can be held just like anybody else."
Locke will be a game-day decision
Derrick Locke (stinger) is day-to-day and had made no improvement as of Wednesday.
"If he can't protect himself, we're not going to put him out on the field," Phillips said.
Phillips did say that he would wait until game day to make a final determination on Locke's status.
"He'll be in the hotel on Friday night," Phillips said. "We'll take him to the hotel and he'll be part of the 70 that travels. We'll see how he feels on Saturday morning because (feeling) could come back at any moment, any day, any time. It could be this afternoon, a week and a half, two weeks, who knows. But we've got to put him on the bus."
Phillips says game big for him, too
South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier made waves Tuesday when he called the Kentucky game the biggest in school history on the heels of the Gamecocks' 35-21 win over No. 1 Alabama.
When asked about Spurrier's comments, Phillips smiled and responded, "It's the biggest game in Joker Phillips' coaching history. It's a big game for both of us."
Phillips said he doesn't expect South Carolina to come in flat after its big win over Alabama.
"You look at his roster, and those guys have been playing a long time together," Phillips said. "The quarterback is experienced. They've got guys who have been around a long time. Steve's been there a long time. It's also the first time they've been at the top of the (SEC East) leader board this late, so they'll be fired up and ready."