UK Football

Kentucky football unknown ready to become well-known

Kentucky cornerback Kendall Randolph (5), defensive back Derrick Baity (29), safety Mike Edwards (27) and linebacker Khalid Henderson (22) celebrated after UK beat Charlotte 58-10 last season.
Kentucky cornerback Kendall Randolph (5), defensive back Derrick Baity (29), safety Mike Edwards (27) and linebacker Khalid Henderson (22) celebrated after UK beat Charlotte 58-10 last season. cbertram@herald-leader.com

If he wasn’t so comfortable in his own pads, Derrick Baity might have gotten a complex by now.

The sophomore cornerback had the misfortune of coming to Kentucky at the same time as All-Freshman Everything Chris Westry.

Freshman of the Week, All-Freshman Southeastern Conference Team, preseason lists and postseason awards? Westry’s on them.

Baity’s been overlooked, his coaches said.

“People don’t talk about Baity, but if you didn’t have Westry on the other side, you would look at Baity and say, ‘Man, that’s one of the most pretty corners you could sign,’” said head coach Mark Stoops, who has signed his share.

If the lack of attention is bothersome to Baity, he’s not saying so.

“I never felt it like I was jealous or anything, but I definitely wanted to be by his side out there,” said the sophomore from Tampa who spent the first eight games of last season as a backup before earning the starting spot. Westry started all 12 games last season.

“I saw that a freshman really could play in the SEC and I was like, ‘We’re the same. I can compete at the same level,’” Baity said of his delayed start. “And now that it’s going to be my year to start, it’s really going to be my breakout year.”

Baity finished his rookie season with 19 tackles, including one for a loss, and both of his pass breakups came in the final game of the season versus Louisville.

“If you look at us and you didn’t know us everyday, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell who is who,” Westry admitted of his good friend and now fellow starting corner. “He comes to play every day. People don’t hear his name every day, but he’s a big sleeper guy. People that don’t know him, they will know him.”

Seeing Westry out there starting early in the season pushed Baity to keep perfecting his craft. Even though he’s just a sophomore, he’s so comfortable in the defense now that he’s frequently telling guys where to go on the field.

That comfort level came with extra work and trying to learn the entire defense, not just his position.

I saw that a freshman really could play in the SEC and I was like, ‘We’re the same. I can compete at the same level.’ And now that it’s going to be my year to start, it’s really going to be my breakout year.

Derrick Baity

“It’s more than just, ‘I’m going to cover you and that’s all I need to do,’” said Baity, who had 66 tackles his senior season at Tampa’s H.B. Plant High School, with six interceptions (three he took back for touchdowns). “I learned to help everyone; I learned how to help my safety out, play higher for him and close the window. Just learning the defense was huge.”

Baity is strong in man coverage and zone coverage, said Westry, who lamented that his running mate didn’t have the same number of starts last season.

“If he’d had more time to get on the field and show what he can do, me and him would be in the same spot,” Westry said.

Ask the guys who go against Baity and Westry every day in practice and they don’t discern much of a difference between the corners. They’re both a handful, wideout Jeff Badet admitted.

“Baity and Chris are equally the same, same speed, same length,” assessed UK’s speediest receiver. “The only difference is Chris probably got an inch or two over Baity. But with those two cornerbacks, I’ve really gotta be creative because they’ve got really good length.”

Baity’s knowledge of the game — partially born out of his push to get some playing time like Westry — sets him apart, defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale said.

“He has a pretty good IQ for football, understands it,” Clinkscale said of Baity. “Does not make the same mistake twice. That’s one thing about him, and I think that’s why he’s improving.”

Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot called Baity one of the team’s best technicians, with excellent eye control.

That’s something Baity prides himself on.

“I get more of the speed guys, so I’ve got to be quick on my toes,” he said. “I’ve got to have really good eyes, good eye control. One split second and the receiver might be right in front of me, double moves and goes for six. I’ve got to have really good eye control.”

Almost daily this summer, Westry and Baity worked out against wide receivers Badet, Garrett Johnson and Ryan Timmons. There were competitive drills with a lot of back and forth, Badet recalled.

After a season of messing around with those guys in practice, Badet said it’s a little tougher to fake them out now.

“Every time a new guy comes in, you have to do a sort of welcome to football; it’s your territory,” he smiled. “But those guys got really good over the summer.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

Kentucky’s defensive backs

The main man: Ask Mark Stoops the best player in the secondary and the head coach who has worked with defensive backs his entire career would have a hard time deciding. It’d be like asking Stoops to pick his favorite kid. But the head coach said more than once after the spring that safety Mike Edwards might be the best player on the team, so we’ll go with that. The 6-foot sophomore had 39 tackles last season with two tackles for loss and an interception. He also forced a fumble and had two pass breakups.

The supporting cast: Edwards isn’t on an island. He has plenty of help in the secondary this season, including veteran safeties like Marcus McWilson (66 tackles) and versatile senior Blake McClain, who has 118 career tackles playing safety, corner and nickelback. The corners could be the true stars of the secondary this season, though, behind Freshman All-SEC standout Chris Westry (36 tackles, team-best eight pass breakups) and Derrick Baity (19 tackles). Others like Kendall Randolph and J.D. Harmon have plenty of playing experience as well.

Outlook: The versatility, speed and depth in the secondary is more than Kentucky has had in recent memory. The group, which Stoops called “the strength of our defense” multiple times this preseason, took a hit when safety Darius West went out for the season with a knee injury. But there are mix-and-match options to replace him. Those aren’t even including several big-name recruits like Jordan Griffin, Davonte Robinson and Tobias Gilliam, who probably would’ve been forced into starting roles a season or two ago. So much of this group’s productivity this season will be centered on the play of the Cats’ front seven, which is unproven. But the secondary will cause some UK opponents fits this season.

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