Even beneath his stoic exterior there had to be a giddy sigh of relief after last season ended for Darius West.
After missing all of the 2016 season with an injured knee — one of four leg injuries has battled since his junior year of high school — the Kentucky football player made it through last season unscathed.
“I’m very happy for him more than almost anybody on the team,” fellow safety Mike Edwards said. “Me and him are real close. And knowing all the stuff he went through with the injury and off-the-field stuff, it’s really great to see how he’s playing.”
When you don’t have to worry about your knee, leg or any other aching body part, when you can focus on your craft, when you can get the necessary repetitions to be good at playing your position, good things happen.
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They did last season for the 6-foot, 210-pound player from Lima, Ohio.
West finished third on the team in tackles with 86, including four for a loss, and made one interception. He capped off that healthy junior season with 11 tackles in the Music City Bowl, one of seven games in which he had seven-plus tackles last year.
It wasn’t like a light coming on for West, like he’d just finally figured out how to play a position. It was feeling comfortable enough in his own body that he could make the plays again.
“For him to stay healthy through the entire season and then have a solid spring, we all see him more comfortable,” Coach Mark Stoops said after the spring game, which West missed after a death in the family.
“He sees things and is playing with a lot of confidence and a lot of poise. He’s an impactful guy. He’s a strong person and can also run. He’s one of the fastest guys we have. So I’ve been just pleased. I think it’s his comfort level and his instincts.”
When defensive coordinator Matt House watches the defense on tape, he barely notices West.
That’s a good thing.
“You’re seeing less mental (mistakes), kind of less bad plays on tape,” House said in the spring. “He’s really been dialed in, had a great attitude, been a blast to work with. I thought he did a nice job today as we mixed him into some different things.”
West has been making up for lost time, not complaining or fussing when coaches asked him to play a little inside linebacker last spring after a couple departures and injuries.
He just seemed happy to be out on the field again.
What coaches learned during that period about West’s never-ending versatility might help the Cats this season.
“Darius is so physical and so sudden,” Stoops said, mentioning that in UK’s base defense, West drops into the box where he can and will play a little hybrid linebacker.
That full year of being healthy has been good for him and for a defense that leans on him to be one of its most physical players and vocal leaders.
“That makes a big difference from a mental standpoint,” House said of West playing an entire season without a setback. “I think along with putting two years back to back of playing football, that the fact he’s been healthy ... gives him a bunch more confidence.”
Knowing that his body wasn’t going to betray him, teammates could see that West was willing to test it a little more, work a little harder.
“He changed,” Edwards said. “Working extra off the field, trying to lead the team, his group. … Right now he’s at the top of his peak and playing well.”
West’s position coach, Dean Hood, says there’s a reason for the safety’s change and it’s not just about being healthy and happy.
“He’s one of those kids, they get to that age and all of the sudden they hear that clock ticking, that it’s going bye-bye and they really grab hold of this is it and they realize it and want to make the most of it,” Hood said of the senior, who has 103 career tackles.
“He’s been outstanding. His attitude, his effort, his passion to be great is unbelievable.”
Scouting the Cats
This is the second of nine stories looking at the 2018 Kentucky football team position by position.
Scouting the secondary
▪ The main man: Senior safety Mike Edwards led the team in tackles last season with 97, including four for a loss and one sack. He also recorded a team-high four interceptions, tied for second most in the Southeastern Conference last season. Edwards opted to come back for a final season after testing NFL Draft options.
▪ The supporting cast: There isn’t a more veteran or deep supporting cast on the roster than there is at safety and cornerback, with 109 combined starts between corners Derrick Baity, Lonnie Johnson, Chris Westry and safeties Darius West and Edwards. Those players have skilled and versatile backups who also have played a lot of snaps in Jordan Griffin and Davonte Robinson. There are a slew of sophomores and redshirt freshmen who likely will see expanded roles this season, such as corners Cedric Dort, Michael Nesbitt and safeties Tyrell Aijan and Yusuf Corker. Even a couple of true freshmen and/or junior college transfer Domonique Williams could be worked in as well.
▪ Outlook: A lot goes into defensive statistics — and coaches are quick to take some of the heat off of their secondary — but it’s a group that seems to be eager to prove the doubters wrong after Kentucky finished 13th in the SEC in yards per game (251.6). Their 21 passing TDs surrendered was only better than two other league opponents. So there’s a lot of work for that group to do. This was all after finishing fifth in pass defense the season before with mostly the same personnel. UK moved Dean Hood back to help with safeties and coaches are hopeful that it’s a group motivated to get back to what made it so successful before. There’s enough depth and versatility that coaches should be able to find combinations that help the Cats become more successful in pass defense.