UK Football

Veterans in Kentucky secondary give talented newcomers time to grow

Head football coach Mark Stoops chats with defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale during an open practice for UK Football Fan Day on the new practice fields in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, August 6, 2016.
Head football coach Mark Stoops chats with defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale during an open practice for UK Football Fan Day on the new practice fields in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, August 6, 2016.

Sometimes it’s hard to be the newbie.

Discussing the progression of Kentucky’s three new defensive backs, safety Mike Edwards can’t help himself.

He has to take a little jab.

“We take pride in bringing them under our wing like Little Tobias and those guys,” Edwards says in reference to Tobias Gilliam, one of three star defensive backs in UK’s freshman class.

A few years ago, any of the three highly touted newcomers, Gilliam, Davonte Robinson and Jordan Griffin, would have had to come in and play right away. UK’s secondary wasn’t brimming with talent as it seems to be now.

This year, with returning starters like Chris Westry and Derrick Baity and safeties Darius West and Edwards all in place, the trio of newcomers has some time to grow into their roles.

And much of that growth has come thanks to the veterans at those positions, all of whom were just freshmen themselves a year or two ago.

Even if it comes with a “little” playful nickname or two, secondary coach Steve Clinkscale has been pleased with the way the more experienced players have embraced the role of teacher.

“The older guys have been real good with them and helping them grow real fast,” Clinkscale said. “You know, Chris and Derrick were freshmen last year, so it’s easy for them to help guys like Jordan Griffin and Davonte Robinson grow.”

In fact, Clinkscale and head coach Mark Stoops made it clear to the players in the secondary that one of their primary jobs is to help bring the next player along.

“When you’re in a position where you’re out front and you’re playing, there’s a leadership that comes with that, a responsibility that comes with that and that’s what I’ve been teaching them,” Clinkscale said.

The consensus among the veterans (and coaches) is that Gilliam, Griffin and Robinson are going to be high-level players for Kentucky.

They’ve been working on things like technique, lining up, communication and other basics, and they’ve had some pretty good tutors.

“They’ve all played a significant role in bettering me,” said Griffin, a four-star prospect by Rivals.com, which had him as the 15th-best cornerback nationally out of Jonesboro (Ga.) High School.

“I just take every aspect I can from each and every one of them. It’s basically just coming in and working hard day in and day out throughout this process.”

Having some veterans to lean on has been especially helpful for former Henry Clay star Robinson.

“They’ve taught me a lot,” said Robinson, who led the Blue Devils in tackles for three straight seasons, including 100 last season.

“In high school, we didn’t run this defense, so coming here has been a wake-up call and it’s way different than high school. I’m hoping that I can learn everything from them, hopefully play as good as them one day.”

Stoops has been pleased with the collective work ethic of those newcomers in the secondary. They have the size, speed and other tangibles, but the head coach also has seen other important traits.

“The true freshmen care,” Stoops said of Gilliam, Griffin and Robinson. “They want to be coached. They work hard. The older guys are starting to work with them.”

What senior nickel back Blake McClain has seen is the newest members of the secondary learning from the veterans, but also pushing the more experienced players to get better.

“We’re deep,” McClain said. “Three positions deep. So if one guy goes down, it’s next man up. The twos and threes could start on this team.”

For now, the twos and threes, which include the true freshmen, are just happy to be studying the older guys.

“I’m still learning, so whatever I do, I hope they get on me and that I can get better,” Robinson said.

Edwards has no doubt this triad of talented freshmen is going to get better and better as fall camp continues.

They may be “little” but they’re going to be special, he said.

“We’re taking them under our wing as best we can,” the safety said smiling. “I think they’re going to be really, really good.”

Defensive line shuffle

Kentucky is still trying to get the right pieces in place to replace starting defensive lineman Regie Meant, who is out indefinitely with a personal issue.

That has meant a lot of mixing and matching of personnel to try to find the best fit and get the best 11 players on the field, defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said after Wednesday morning’s practice, the first of two.

Eliot broke down some current lineups, which include Matt Elam at nose guard, Courtney Miggins at defensive end and Adrian Middleton getting reps at first-team tackle. Miggins also has been seeing time at tackle.

“I’ve also seen some good things from our freshman defensive tackles,” Eliot continued. “T.J. Carter, Kordell Looney, Ja’Quize (Cross), they’ve done an excellent job. They’ve got a bright future here.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

Season opener

Southern Miss at Kentucky

When: Sept. 3, 7:30 p.m.

TV: ESPNU

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