By: ASHLEY SCOBY
Zero is an empty number, a symbol of nothing. According to Merriam-Webster, zero is “the absence of a measurable quantity.”
Zero is also the number of interceptions pulled down by Kentucky’s cornerbacks last season.
“It really hurt us to our heart,” said senior corner Nate Willis, who was a junior college transfer to Kentucky last year. “We practiced so hard but now it just puts a chip on our shoulders so every day we’re competing. We’re just looking to make some big plays and some big interceptions.”
Just like with the rest of the team, Kentucky’s secondary not only wants to make a drastic change, but is already seeing that change manifest itself in spring practice.
A unit that saw several compete as true freshmen (Cody Quinn, J.D. Harmon, Fred Tiller) suddenly has the experience it’s been needing for years. Those guys (juniors now, except for Harmon) have now taken on leadership roles in the secondary.
“The experience helps out a lot,” said junior college transfer A.J. Stamps, who came in as a corner but has been moved to safety. “I’m new to the safety position so when I’m at practice and Coach calls a play and I’m like, ‘All right, what do I got?’ and instead of asking the coach I can ask one of those guys and they can just spit it out to me. The experience they have from playing last year helps me out a lot.”
Stamps represents the flexibility of this year’s secondary. Although Stamps played some safety in high school, he entered junior college as a cornerback and has played there almost exclusively the last couple of years.
But in the Southeastern Conference, players have to be more all-purpose type players, even on the defensive side.
“He (Stamps) brings us that athletic safety that we need to cover guys,” said head coach Mark Stoops. “There’s no way around it. The old days of just a big, physical safety are gone. You’ve got to be able to do a lot of things, and he’s very versatile that way.”
Blake McClain, who was second on the team in tackles last year as a true freshman, knows a little about switching positions in the secondary. He’s played at cornerback, safety and linebacker before settling in as the team’s go-to nickelback last season.
This year, he will still be in a “dual role” at safety and nickelback, but there will be less confusion over where he will be on a week-to-week basis.
“For the most part we moved him out of the corner business so he’s mostly settled in on three positions,” Stoops joked. “So that’s good.”
The constant shuffling last season of players from position to position could have helped lead to the secondary’s struggles. Not only did the corners have zero interceptions on the year, but the entire secondary only had one, after safety Ashely Lowery picked one off in the last game of the season against Tennessee.
Now, everybody is settled into their roles and is ready to bump up their productivity.
“We were really kind of slow getting the plays, getting the defense,” Willis said about last season. “We didn’t know who was going to be where. We were just feeling it out and playing. This year … we know where everybody’s going to be at so we can make more plays as a group.”
Once the mental hurdle of understanding your own position is out of the way, physicality can take over.
“It’s all about playing fast and physical now,” Quinn said.
That speed and physicality have shown themselves during spring practice. Several scuffles have broken out during drills, something that has not happened in the last few years.
Stoops stresses winning “your one-on-one,” which leads to some fireworks between the secondary and the receivers.
“You want to take care of your teammates but sometimes it gets intense out there,” Quinn said.
Specifically, wideouts Demarco Robinson, Jeff Badet and Rashad Cunningham bring the most intensity against the secondary, according to Quinn. Winning one-on-ones against those guys has become key for Kentucky’s corners as they fight their way out of the SEC cellar.
Last year, Kentucky was 10th in the SEC in pass defense, last in pass defensive efficiency and last in interceptions made.
This time around, the corners hope to have more than a goose egg in that statistical column. And the secondary as a whole is willing to put up a fight after such a disheartening 2013 season.
“Everyone said the team (last year) had no fight and there were no leaders on the team,” Stamps said. “I see a little bit of change this year. Everybody’s getting that dog in them and wanting to be the best of the best.”