Returning Players: Martavius Neloms, Cartier Rice, Mikie Benton, Dakotah Tyler, Glen Faulkner, Ashely Lowery, Eric Dixon, Eric Simmons, Marcus Caffey, Jerry Williams
Newcomers: Daron Blaylock, Zach Blaylock, Shawn Blaylock, Cody Quinn, Fred Tiller, Jonathan Reed, Josh Harris, Sterling Wright, Cantrell McKinley, Cody Lewis
Projected Starters: Martavius Neloms, Mikie Benton, Cartier Rice, Ashely Lowery
2012 Outlook: Kentucky’s defensive backfield has seen more than it’s share of misfortune in the past two years. Early departures, injuries, and academic woes have decimated depth and several freshmen will be counted on to contribute right away. The goal has to be to just play older and more experienced than the unit will actually be.
Starters: Martavius Neloms has moved back to corner where he was surprisingly good for a true freshman. There he and long-time nickel back Cartier Rice will attempt to lock down the perimeter while Ashely Lowery and Mikie Benton will cover the deep sections of the field at safety. The starters will be as green as the depth this year, so it will be important that the freshmen and sophomores grow up fast.
When Neloms committed to Kentucky, the fan base let out a collective “who?” The unknown two-star player from Memphis had just started playing organized football and wasn’t on many coaches’ radars. He was able to secure playing time at corner as a true freshman and never looked back. He was a starting corner in 2010, a starting safety in 2011, and was supposed to be a starting safety again this season. Circumstances have facilitated a move back to corner for him now, and he’ll be relied upon to provide leadership and depth for Kentucky’s green defensive backfield. Neloms is sure to be the glue that holds the defensive backfield together.
When it comes to patience, Rice beats most players on this roster. He will enter his senior season after being a major special teams contributor, and key reserve throughout his career. Now, Rice’s opportunity has come and he is expected to start opposite Neloms. Rice’s biggest obstacle will be his physical size. At 5’10, he’s not tiny, but he might struggle against some of the league’s taller receivers. That considered, Rice has always had a knack for making the most of limited opportunities so starting will give him a chance to really show what he can do.
As a walk-on and converted cornerback, no one really ever had high expectations for Benton. Despite this, he has been able to consistently improve throughout his career to the point of winning a starting job last season. Benton isn’t the biggest or fastest safety on the roster, but he is reliable, intelligent, and has a knack for finding the ball. He’s been called the quarterback of the defense too, which tells you how valuable the staff thinks he really is.
After coming to Lexington as the “YouTube guy,” Lowery made a big splash right away as a safety and kick returner. Now heading into his sophomore season, a combination of Lowery’s talent and personnel circumstances have led to his ascending to the top of the depth chart at safety. Lowery will be a bit of a wildcard this year, as he is one of the most naturally gifted players on the roster despite his experience.
It’s fairly rare that’s player leaves the team for an entire season, and then returns and contributes in any way, but it sounds like that’s exactly what Tyler is doing. Now that his affairs are in order, Tyler arrives back on campus at just the right time. Depth at safety is razor thin and Tyler may actually be competing for a starting job at some point in the near future. At the very least, Tyler should be a major special teams contributor this season.
It’s been a bumpy road for the former Army All-American and things just won’t smooth themselves for him. A late arrival to camp last season set him back initially, but a recent injury in camp has further derailed Faulkner to this point. All that considered, Faulkner is one of the most naturally talented players on the roster and he’ll only be a sophomore this season in 2012. If he can heal quickly, the other safeties better look out, because Faulkner has “next-level” talent.
The funny thing about Eric Dixon, is that his biggest weakness is also his biggest strength. He’s a classic “tweener,” or a guy who doesn’t have a true natural position. He is big enough and tough enough to play safety, but also quick enough to play corner. His versatility should suit him well in Minter’s. Implied scheme where he will give the defense a player to move around and give the offense fits. The biggest struggle for Dixon though, might be finding a permanent home. Regardless of whether he ends up at safety or cornerback, you can bet you’ll see plenty of him this fall.
Some might be concerned by the fact that Simmons has not moved up the depth chart yet, but there’s little to worry about. Simmons was a project all along and was a raw athlete when Kentucky signed him. And he’s also only a sophomore. There’s plenty of time for Simmons to break out and he should have ample opportunities with limited depth in the defensive backfield and his role on special teams.
The running back that turned out to be a breakout star as a corner has been ruled academically ineligible for the 2012 season. He will need to focus on the classroom this fall and hope Kentucky makes a bowl game of he hopes to see any time this season. He should be a favorite to win a starting job at corner next season, as long as none of the freshmen utilize this season to bypass him on the depth chart.
While we typically stay away from profiling young walk-ons due to their tendency to sit ay the bottom of the depth chart or just disappear, Williams is an exception. He looked very strong in the spring game and has had a relatively seamless transition from receiver to defense. Now, a lack of depth could push Williams, a former quarterback from Lexington, onto the field in only his redshirt freshman season.
Of the three Blaylocks, Daron is the biggest and most physical. In a normal year, he would almost certainly be redshirted and developed as an athletic linebacker, but this season the new at safety is so dire he may spend at least his first year there. Daron is big, fast, and hits like Ray Lewis. In the worst-case scenario, he’s a special teams superstar.
Zach is a true safety all the way and could really be developed as a strong or free safety as he is equally skilled at stuffing the run as he is at dropping into coverage. With elite athleticism and an athletic pedigree, the staff will have to fight to keep Zach off the field.
As far as raw athleticism goes, perhaps no member in the 2012 class has more than Shawn. Unfortunately, he suffered a knee injury that requires season-ending knee surgery. Now, Shawn will focus on rehabbing and preparing for the 2013 season when he should compete for playing time at cornerback.
Rees is a speed demon that will instantly be able to stay with almost every SEC receiver in a foot race. Despite his size, he isn’t scared to come up and lay the big hit on a back or take on a leading blocker on the edge. Reed should play special teams at the very least, and could see plenty of time on defense when the opposition goes into multiple receiver sets.
With prototypical height, speed, and toughness, Tiller has as much potential as any player on Kentucky’s roster. An abundance of playing time is available at corner and Tiller is walking into the perfect storm for him to see the field right away and his skill-set and physical size are eerily similar to Marcus Caffey, so he could be an ideal replacement for him. As long as Tiller remains healthy, he is almost certain to play as a true freshman.
There’s something to be said for a defensive back wit swagger, and Quinn has plenty. On top of SEC speed and skills, he has the confidence to step up against the best down after down without being intimidated, which is rare for a freshman. Like all the other young cornerbacks, Quinn will have plenty of opportunities to play and play early.
When it comes to versatility, it’s hard not to talk about Josh Harris. He could play anyone of about six different positions successfully, but it appears that he will at least begin his career as a safety. Like the Blaylock twins, Harris could certainly play on special teams from day one of his college career, but unlike the Blaylock twins, Harris had major surgery last season. If he can’t be 100% healthy and fully into the defensive back rotation, you have to think that the staff will redshirt Harris to give him some extra time rehabilitating.
Wright was a late signing day addition to the 2012 class and is still a relative unknown even to those who closely follow UK football. As a prep school player, Wright is a year older than most of Kentucky’s signees and would have come in at a great time to play early. Unfortunately, an injury appears to have derailed Wrights chances to play this season and he will be forced to prepare for 2013.
-Review by Kyle Tucker