UK Football

Cats boast talent, depth in secondary

University of Kentucky Coach Rich Brooks has said that junior Trevard Lindley is as good as any cornerback in the country.

But that doesn't mean that Lindley gets a free pass from defensive coordinator Steve Brown. It's just the opposite. Brown rides Lindley harder than anybody else on the team because he's so good.

“I'm tough on him,” Brown said. “Because there is no ceiling for Trevard. He can be as good as he wants to be. We get him on daily about working harder. He's got so much talent that it's my job as a coach to make sure he gets the most out of it, and I'm that way because things come so easy for him.”

Even Lindley himself admitted, “I guess sometimes I can get a little lazy in practice.”

When it's game-time, though, Lindley usually brings it every week. He's been a starter since his redshirt freshman season, and has been perhaps the biggest playmaker on the Wildcat defense during that time.

Two years ago, his fourth-quarter interception sealed the program-turning win over Georgia. His pick of Brian Brohm in the Louisville game on Brohm's first pass attempt set up UK's first score and set the table for the win. He returned a fumble 66 yards for a score in a win over Arkansas. He saved a touchdown against South Carolina by poking the ball out of the hands of tight end Weslye Saunders just as he was crossing the goal line. He's also been outstanding in Kentucky's consecutive Music City Bowl wins: He had a highlight-reel end zone interception and recovered a fumble against Clemson in 2006, and added three pass breakups and a forced fumble against Florida State.

Only one time last season did a receiver clearly get the better of Lindley. In Florida's 45-37 win over UK, Gator wideout Louis Murphy beat Lindley deep one-on-one for a 66-yard touchdown pass from Tim Tebow.

Lindley said he was caught by surprise on the deep ball.

“I thought he was going to run an inside route, and he just took off,” Lindley said. “I tried to catch him, but I couldn't. I guess I wasn't really ready for it.”

Brown said plays like those are what he uses as teaching tools for those rare players with Lindley's talent level.

“We preached to him that Florida lives by the big play, and those guys are just going to run down the field,” Brown said. “He started late in his backpedal, and the guy ran right by him. You hate like heck for that happen, but hopefully you learn from it. Maybe from now on, when they tell you the stove is hot, they won't stick their hand on it to see if you're telling the truth or not.”

UK secondary coach Chris Thurmond said he's been working with Lindley on positioning.

“He's got enough speed that even when he's out of position, he can come back and make plays,” Thurmond said. “Now we're continuing to work with him on being in perfect position so he can make even more plays.”

Teams threw away from Lindley for the most part last fall, but the performance of senior David Jones in fall camp suggests that the Cats will have a nice 1-2 combo at corner.

“You feel solid about those two,” Thurmond said. “The SEC is such a competitive league, such a fight, that if you can play with experienced guys who have been through the battles, that's what you're looking for.”

The Wildcats were a respectable 24th in the nation in pass defense last year and return plenty of experience from that unit. Free safety Marcus McClinton is a fifth-year senior, Jones is a fourth-year senior, Lindley a fourth-year junior and strong safety Ashton Cobb a third-year junior.

McClinton's career has been hampered by injuries, but he still has six interceptions and seven forced fumbles in 34 games. Cobb should be ready for a starter's role after seeing major minutes behind Roger Williams the past two seasons.

The loss of cornerback Paul Warford (ineligible) robbed the secondary of a player with 14 games' starting experience and speeds up the learning curve for redshirt freshman Randall Burden and true freshman Cartier Rice. Burden had an interception in UK's first scrimmage over the weekend.

Seniors Shomari Moore and Robbie McAtee provide a pair of veteran options at corner.

There are also some young, promising reserves at safety. Redshirt freshman Matt Lentz, a former quarterback, has been delivering big hits since being moved to strong safety in the spring.

“Matt's got the ability to be physical,” Thurmond said. “We're just trying to get him to totally understand the scheme so he can play fast.”

Redshirt freshman Greg Wilson is also fighting for time at strong safety, with another redshirt, Taeido Smith, backing up McClinton. Junior Calvin Harrison, who missed spring ball because of injury, is also available.

Even though the Wildcats figure to have a solid starting unit, Brown says he will get plenty of guys into the rotation.

“We're one injury away from having a problem, and we want to make sure that we don't have any problems,” Brown said. “If someone goes down, we want the next guy to be ready to go.”

Coach: Chris Thurmond in his first season coaching defensive backs at Kentucky. He came to the Wildcats from Houston and has also spent time at Oklahoma, Alabama and Texas A & M.

The main man: Junior cornerback Trevard Lindley doesn't say much, but he's got a bushel of big-game plays in his portfolio. He's a true cover corner who can also play the run (66 tackles) despite weighing just 175 pounds.

The supporting cast: Free safety Marcus McClinton has shown the potential to be a ballhawk when healthy, and the coaches say senior corner David Jones has had a solid fall camp. Strong safety Ashton Cobb has three starts under his belt, and senior Shomari Moore has excelled in the past as a nickel back.

Newcomer to watch: Redshirt freshman Matt Lentz has gone from a left-handed, dual-threat quarterback to a hard-hitting strong safety with a Mohawk. Lentz is still learning the position but has the physical tools to see the field this fall.

Reasons for optimism: depth. The secondary has five players with at least one career interception, and there's talent on the second and third teams also.

Reasons for concern: With many teams employing five-receiver sets these days, UK needs to make sure that it's young corners are ready for game action and don't get exposed early.

Outlook: The Cats were better than a lot of people realized at defending the pass last year, and if the front seven gets more pressure on the quarterbacks, UK's numbers should rise in 2008.

Chip Cosby