Sidelines with John Clay

Silver linings in Kentucky football’s bad news

Lonnie Johnson: A look back at the Kentucky cornerback’s 2018 season

Highlights from University of Kentucky football cornerback Lonnie Johnson's 2018 season.
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Highlights from University of Kentucky football cornerback Lonnie Johnson's 2018 season.

Thursday’s news of defensive back Davonte Robinson’s season-ending injury is a blow to the Kentucky football team, but it does contain two possible silver linings.

One, the injury occurred before the start of training camp, meaning the staff has a month to find a replacement before the season opener Aug. 31 against Toledo.

Two, Mark Stoops and his staff have shown they know how to identify and develop junior-college talent.

Stoops’ first recruiting class included Za’Darius Smith, a juco defensive lineman from East Mississippi Community College who recently signed a lucrative free agent contract with the NFL’s Green Bay Packers. And just this past April, Lonnie Johnson, a cornerback Stoops signed out of Garden City Community College in Kansas, was taken in the second round of the NFL Draft by the Houston Texans.

Enter juco defensive backs Quandre Mosely and Brandin Echols, both of whom begin their first UK training camp next week. Both are being counted on to provide depth to an inexperienced secondary. Now, with Robinson’s injury, both could play a much bigger role.

Mosely is a 6-foot-2, 181-pound DB from Brunswick, Ga. who played at Eastern Arizona Community College. Remember, Stoops was defensive coordinator under his brother Mike Stoops at Arizona before leaving for Florida State. A former wide receiver in high school, Mosley recorded a league-high six interceptions last season.

[It will take more than one year to convince Kentucky football’s skeptics]

Echols is a 5-11, 174-pound DB from Memphis. He arrived at Northwest Mississippi Community College as a wide receiver before being moved to defensive back. Echols was a second-team NJCAA All-American last season. Ranked as the sixth-best junior college cornerback by 247Sports, Echols committed to the Cats after UK’s 28-7 win over Mississippi State last season.

This is the third straight year Kentucky just before the start of the season. Two years ago, wide receiver Dorian Baker suffered a dislocated ankle during a preseason scrimmage and missed the season. Last year, offensive tackle Landon Young tore his ACL just before the start of camp and missed the season.

Both times, UK survived. In 2017, the Cats went 7-6 with a TaxSlayer Bowl loss to Georgia Tech. Last year, of course, Kentucky rolled to a 10-3 mark that included a 27-24 win over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl. Of course, you can argue that there was enough depth at the respective positions each of the past two years to soften the pre-season blow.

[Grouping the SEC football coaches into tiers before 2019]

That’s a tougher sell this year with regard to Robinson’s absence. As you may have heard, Kentucky lost four starters and a top reserve from last year’s secondary. Johnson and safety Mike Edwards (third-round by Tampa Bay) were both drafted. Starting cornerback Derrick Baity and safety Darius West are also gone. So, too, is backup corner Chris Westry, who played a lot of football.

The feeling is that there is plenty of talent in the current secondary. Josh Moore offered a run-down of the possible replacements. They just need experience. At SEC Football Media Days, UK wide-out Lynn Bowden was particularly complimentary of Cedric Dort, the sophomore out of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. “He can play,” said Bowden.

Before becoming a defensive coordinator and then a head coach, Stoops was a secondary coach. And he has a pair of excellent defensive backs coaches in Steve Clinkscale and Dean Hood. Their training camp task all along was to develop guys who can play who can fill the secondary holes. Now they’ll need to find one more.

Kentucky’s pass defense numbers in 2018

National ranking in parenthesis

  • Yards per game: 186.3 (18th)
  • Yards per attempt: 6.4 (26th)
  • Completion percentage: 57.4 (49th)
  • TDs allowed: 14 (18th)
  • Interceptions: 9 (80th)
  • Efficiency rating: 119.05 (36th)

Source: College Football Stats

Former Kentucky running back Benny Snell returned to Lexington from his training with the Pittsburgh Steelers to host the Snell Yeah Camp for children at Lexington Catholic High School on Tuesday, July 16, 2019.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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