UK Football

Scouting the Cats: UK's nickelback a hybrid spot where there's no place to hide

Kentucky's Blake McClain backs up his play with a heavy dose of trash talk. The junior defensive back had 28 tackles last season — including two sacks — and broke up seven pass attempts.
Kentucky's Blake McClain backs up his play with a heavy dose of trash talk. The junior defensive back had 28 tackles last season — including two sacks — and broke up seven pass attempts. Lexington Herald-Leader

If Kentucky coaches posted the job description for nickelback, they probably wouldn't get many applicants.

The position description would include: a player fast enough to cover the opposing team's best wide receiver, be shifty enough to get past defensive ends to blitz the quarterback when necessary, be strong enough to bring down running backs when called upon.

And as Kentucky's nickelback, you may be asked to do any of these things at a moment's notice.

"It's a very tough position because of so much that's entailed in that position, not only physically but mentally," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said of what has become a key part of Kentucky's defense, mostly against pass-happy teams, like many in the Southeastern Conference have become.

"It's a very unique position," head coach Mark Stoops said. "It's not easy. You've got to have instincts and unique ability."

Last season the Kentucky coaches entrusted that position to true freshman Blake McClain, who didn't disappoint, finishing tied for third on the team with tackles with 59.

McClain, who started the final 11 games last season, also had a sack, a tackle for loss, five pass breakups and a forced fumble.

Now a sophomore, McClain has become a key leader of the Cats' secondary.

But even he had trouble defining everything the job entails.

"It's like a linebacker/corner/safety," he said, almost sounding out of breath as he continued to describe it.

"Sometimes you're in the box at 190 (pounds) and sometimes you're out there on an island with their best wide receiver. It's a mixture of safety and linebacker. The biggest thing is just getting the different calls and route recognition and what they're going to do."

If you're the nickelback, you might suddenly find yourself going up against your opponent's top receiver in the middle of the field with not much support around you.

"It's very difficult because of all the space that nickel has to cover that guy in," Eliot continued. "A corner can leverage that wideout to the sideline. There's only so much space over there, but a nickel has to be able to cover a guy on the line of scrimmage for the whole field."

That means the job description also would include a player who can change directions on a dime and has a super-fast first step.

"There's little nuances to different coverages with that position," Stoops said. "So there's a lot to it."

Not to mention, the nickel also is "a guy that can be physical enough so that if they run the ball on the perimeter he can get off blocks and make a play," Eliot said.

That nickelback position has become so important to Kentucky's ever-changing defensive schemes that Stoops tabbed another true freshman in Kendall Randolph to add another body and to free up McClain, who may be moved to safety in specific situations.

Randolph, a 6-foot freshman from Tallahassee, fits the job description.

"Randolph's coming along real good," McClain said. "He played a lot of corner, so coverage and all that is easy for him, so he's coming along real good."

When asked on Media Day about having to pick up such a complicated position as a true freshman, Randolph nodded.

"It's a challenge to say the least," he said, adding that he's gotten more comfortable with each repetition. "Hopefully the preparation the coaches are putting me through will have me where I need to be by the time the season starts."

Cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley said the team has filled the complicated job in McClain and Randolph.

"They're very instinctive," Ansley said. "They're both very good athletes and they're doing a very good job of doing all of those things."

Safety Edwards on campus

Kentucky safety Mike Edwards has made it to campus, but it seems unlikely that he'll find his way onto the playing field this season, his coaches said.

The four-star safety from Ohio, who deferred enrollment and missed most of fall camp because of what he thought would be shoulder surgery, is on campus for orientation and has enrolled, Stoops said Wednesday morning.

"Mike is here, he's been admitted to school, he's going through orientation and we're working through certification," Stoops said. "So he'll be here. That's good news. Whether he helps us this year or is ready to play this year we'll see. We'll cross that bridge as it comes, but I'm glad he's here if nothing else for the future."

Eliot seemed more definitive when asked if he could see a situation where Edwards could play this season.

'I don't expect it, no," he said. "Miss the whole training camp, it's tough. At any position, at any position."

The 5-foot-11, 182-pound safety had 46 tackles, six interceptions and two fumble recoveries in his senior season.

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