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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.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky cornerback Fred Tiller has always been a basketball fan.
“My first sport was basketball when I was 10 and it is still my favorite sport to this day,” said Tiller. “I knew I was better at football and would make a living out of football, so that it what I really focused on. I played football, basketball and ran track in high school.
“I never really gave up my basketball dream. I finished my senior year and was top 50 in state. But at 5-11 1/2, you are not going to get looks in basketball. I was getting looks in football, so I focused on that.”
However, that doesn’t mean he has lost any confidence in his basketball skills and he tries to play whenever he has a chance even now.
What does he think of the talent on Kentucky’s basketball team?
“We barely see them now. When we go to JC (Joe Craft Center) and just shoot around and play around, I really have never seen one of them,” Tiller said.
Could he take one or more of them one-on-one?
“I would try, but they are like trees. They are 6-10 and I am like 5-11, so they are a foot taller than us,” Tiller said. “We could try.”
“We have some hoopers on the team. Bud Dupree, he is 260, 6-4 and has 40-inch vertical. He’s a player,” Tiller said.
He could even rattle off a starting football five on the basketball court.
“It would be me at point guard, J.D. Harmon at shooting guard, Ashely Lowery at small forward, Josh Forrest at the four and Bud at the five. Josh is a baller, too. He could more than hold his own,” Tiller said.
While that type of matchup is likely never to become a reality, Tiller says basketball seriously is a way for football players to relax.
“Playing basketball does take a lot of stress off us. You shouldn’t always think about football,” Tiller said. “If you think about football too much, you will worry yourself a lot. If you get your mind off that, then when you come out here on the field you should worry about football. But when you are off, you should learn your plays but not think about being out there on the field.”
Does he really foresee the day he’ll be in the NBA and get paid to play as he hoped when he chose football over basketball?
“It is like my least worry right now. I am just trying to better my team, be a better person and player,” Tiller said. “So I can’t be thinking that far ahead. But once I get a thought in my mind, I don’t give it up. I will admit that.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Cornerback Fred Tiller doesn’t enjoy losing, and didn’t expect Kentucky to lose when he came here from Clinch County (Ga.).
“I just came to play and win. I didn’t expect to go 2-10 last year. I never lost that many games in high school. I expected to win, and still do,” said the sophomore cornerback, who had seven tackles and one fumble recovery in last week’s loss to Western Kentucky. “I am doing my best this year to stay on the field and win games. Coach (Mark) Stoops, I think, is a great head coach and has a good staff under him, so we are going to win a lot of games this year. I still believe that.”
Tiller, who played in 11 games last year when he had 27 tackles, was a three-year starter and receiver in high school. He was an all-state pick as a senior and had 31 catches for 736 yards and nine scores and made 65 tackles and five interceptions as a junior when his team went 15-0 and won the state championship. He was all-region in basketball and also ran track.
He worked his way to No. 1 on the depth chart during preseason camp and will make his second start Saturday against Miami (Ohio).
“Everybody should be a leader. Everybody out there now should know every call because they are way easier. We should know what to do,” said Tiller. “The calls this year are way easier and you can catch on to them faster than last year. Last year they were too complicated. There were so many calls we had to know. It was hard. We had a senior safety that knew all our stuff. He would try to give us all our calls so we could play.
“I have improved a lot. I have gotten bigger, faster and stronger. I know all my plays, all my stuff. I don’t know what the defensive line and linebackers are doing and stuff like that most of the time, but I know what the safeties and corners are doing.”
Tiller did worry about what would happen to him with the coaching change.
“I thought they would come in and not give us (returning players) no look because the people that they were recruiting would be their guys. Some people believe that the people they recruit are their guys, but it is totally different with this staff. They are going to play the best people, the most physical, that give effort. Just going to play and fight to win is what they want you to do, and what we should do,” Tiller said.
Tiller feels he’s equally good at tackling and covering the pass.
“I like to tackle. I had a lot of tackles in high school. I had the most tackles on the team as a freshman coming in last year with 27. But my cover skills are way better this year, too,” he said. “If I have to tackle, I will tackle. If I have to cover, I will cover. Blitzing, I do that, too. It doesn’t matter to me as long as I am on the field helping my team.”
Tiller says his only worry is helping Kentucky improve and win games.
“I am just trying to better my team, be a better person and stuff like that. Just try to have a breakout season and help my team win,” he said. “We have to be more physical. Just flying to the ball, hitting the person with the ball and making tackles for loss and intercepting. Just making plays to win. That’s what we have to do and what I have to do because losing is no fun.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky’s lack of depth and experience in the secondary made getting junior college signee Nate Willis on campus a priority for Kentucky coach Mark Stoops. The Florida native finally got to UK Wednesday and began practice Thursday. However, Willis warned Friday not to expect miracles from him.
“It’s not really a savior deal. I’m just here to do my part. It’s really a team matter. It’s 10 other guys, so everyone has to do their part and the defense come together,” said Willis. “It’s really not a savior deal because I really can’t do it by myself. As long as 11 play together, everything should be good.”
Willis had been waiting for word he passed two online courses this summer to finish his degree at Arizona Western College. Once he did, he headed to UK immediately.
“I really haven’t unpacked,” Willis said. “I was fired up. I was just ready to get here and go to work.”
Stoops liked what he saw from Willis immediately.
“I did see some good things from Nate,” Stoops said. “I do. I think he’s got some good ability. It’s good to see.”
Kentucky is low on depth at cornerback after J.D. Harmon was dismissed from the team for academic reasons and expected starter Cody Quinn went down with what has been described as a minor ankle injury. That has left sophomore Fred Tiller and true freshmen Blake McClain and Jaleel Hytchye getting first-team work.
Stoops, the former Florida State defensive coordinator, says Willis can catch up despite not being on campus all summer.
“That’s the good thing about corner,” Stoops said. “It’s very hard in application, but really pretty easy in theory really. You’re not reinventing the wheel as far as assignments with cornerbacks. But if they can cover somebody, they can help us.”
Willis thinks he can do that. He worked out on his own and his junior college coaches kept in contact with him during the summer. He said Friday he was in “fair shape” when he got to UK.
“You can never (duplicate) what’s going to go on out here in practice,” Willis said. “That’s my job: come here and cover, play my part in the defense and just try to help the defense get better at what we do. And that’s stopping people.”
The 6-0, 180-pound Willis had six interceptions the last two seasons. He was rated the No. 3 junior college cornerback nationally by 247Sports.com and the No. 54 overall junior college prospect by Rivals.com.
“He’s got good length. He’s got good ball skills. Very quick in and out of his breaks,” cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley said. “He’s very instinctive, meaning that he can anticipate routes, he understands leverages and he’s got ball skills once the ball’s in the air.”
Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot was also impressed.
“He’s very quick and very athletic. He’s long, he’s tall. Not all our corners have those assets.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Could Kentucky really beat Tennessee twice in a row in football? Could it really happen in years when Kentucky football has not been that god?
Kentucky defensive coordinator Rick Minter says for that to happen, UK will have to slow down what he thinks might be the best offensive team that Kentucky has played this season. The Volunteers rank 13th nationally in passing offense,averaging 317.6 yards a game and are 23rd in total offense nationally with 477.6 yards per contest.
However, he says Kentucky’s players continue to prepare well and not be distracted by the firing of coach Joker Phillips two weeks ago.
“Kids are always bounce back, no matter what happens in life,” Minter said. “They are much more resilient than adults because they don’t think about it too much, they just do it. We will wish them well and pull for them always. Kentucky will always have a special place in your heart because whenever you work somewhere for a while you give it everything you have. Therefore when you leave, you leave some of yourself behind.”
Whoever the next Kentucky coach is, Minter said the future is bright with talented underclassmen on defense.
“All the kids on the back end that have played and contributed this year, some in a mighty role, others in a minor role, are all going to be good players,” Minter said. “You just mark it down — the Blaylocks (Daron and Zack) are going to be good players, the young corners all three of them (Cody Quinn, Fred Tiller, J.D. Harmon) are going to be good players, (Khalid) Henderson is going to be a good player, (Pancho) Thomas is going to be a good player. There are three defensive linemen that you have never seen because they are being redshirted but they are going to be good solid guys, whether it be (Patrick) Graffree, (Thomas) Chapman, (Langston) Newton.
“There are others, I don’t want to be remiss (in not mentioning them), but it is a bright future. How bright, who knows? But it is a much brighter future than it was a few years ago looking down the road of guys finally getting into this program.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
It’s not hard for Kentucky coach Joker Phillips to note what he likes best about the five true freshmen defensive backs the Wildcats have been forced to play this season because of injuries in the secondary.
“They are doing a really good job competing. They are showing up every day and competing really hard,” said Phillips as UK (1-7) prepares to play at Missouri (3-4) Saturday.
Cornerback Cody Quinn and Zack Blaylock both played 72 plays against Georgia. Cornerback Fred Tiller logged 60 plays. Safety Daron Blaylock and cornerback J.D. Harmon also played.
“With young guys, sometimes you worry about conditioning and being able to hold up against a team as physical as Georgia,” Phillips said. “But they all came up and made tackles.”
Tiller had eight tackles against Georgia, Zack Blaylock seven and Quinn four.
“They delivered the blows. That is the thing I am most proud of,” Phillips said. “Those guys will compete. Don’t back down from anything.
“You don’t see those guys change when they get beat and they will get beat. They’re young kids that still try to find their way, but their demeanor doesn’t change when they give up a play. Cody Quinn gave up a big pass and then a touchdown on the slant, and when he came off, I grabbed him and just wanted to look him in his eyes and see what I saw, and I saw still a confident guy but really didn’t believe that the guy had beat him, had signaled touchdown.
“He was one of those guys you feel good about that you have to play that way if you’re playing corner. It’s not every position. But you have to play that way when you’re playing corner and the thing I’m most proud about is those guys, their demeanor just never changes. And Harmon is the same way, both Blaylocks are the same way. All five of those guys playing in the secondary, it’s unusual for you to have five freshmen that have the confidence level that those guys have.”
Phillips also likes the way the freshmen seldom miss tackles.
“That’s the thing we want to improve being a better tackling team. And you saw Fred Tiller get cut two times on a screen pass, jumps over the cut block, falls down, misses the tackle but then makes it for a 2‑yard gain. So those guys, Cody Quinn does not miss a lot of tackles,” Phillips said. “A lot has to do with being better athletes starting to be better understand how to run their feet. Come from good programs. Cody Quinn is one of our strongest guys in this freshman class. So we’re starting to get guys that are physically and athletic enough to run through and understand balance. That’s what you have to have when you’re tackling, you have to be balanced when you come up to make a tackle.”
Kentucky has allowed almost 800 yards passing the last two games, but will apparently not have to face Missouri quarterback James Franklin. He’s listed as doubtful again with a knee injury as the Tigers will go with backup Corbin Berstresser at quarterback.
The Wildcats will again start freshman Jalen Whitlow at quarterback, but freshman Patrick Towles apparently will play. He played briefly against Mississippi State — and led one touchdown drive — before injuring his ankle and missing the last two games.
“I thought he did a good job this week of moving around better than I ever would’ve thought. He has continued to tell us how fast of a healer he is, and he is. He looked good today — all week, really, moving around. Especially once he took the air cast off,” Phillips said Thursday.
By EVAN CRANE, UK Media Relations
Kentucky coach Joker Phillips continued to praise the efforts of three true freshman cornerbacks in J.D. Harmon, Fred Tiller and Cody Quinn. All three saw action last week against Florida and played aggressive, according to Phillips. The head coach said due to the injury of safety Ashely Lowery and the play of the young corners, senior defensive back Martavius Neloms, who had been playing corner, took snaps this week at safety to provide more depth there.
“You saw a lot of young guys in the back end challenging receivers and that is the thing that stood out to me last week,” Phillips said after Thursday’s practice. “Guys like Fred Tiller, Cody Quinn and J.D. Harmon were challenging guys and that is what you want to do. Being a defensive back, you are going to get beat, that is just a matter of when and where. The thing you have to do is win your share. And the thing I saw was that those guys more won than their share of opportunities.”
Phillips has been impressed with the play of UK’s youth this season overall, especially defensively, mentioning true freshman linebackers Khalid Henderson and Pancho Thomas and redshirt freshman defensive lineman Farrington Huguenin.
“At the second level, those two young freshman linebackers (Henderson and Thomas) made some plays for us and will continue to get better,” Phillips said. “Farrington Huguenin is a freshman also that continues to get better. The thing we have to do is keep improving as much as we possibly can. That is the ideal of us getting a chance to play again this weekend to see how much we have improved each week and see how much we can improve this week especially with a young team.”
Phillips said he understands that as Kentucky improves so do the teams that make up the final eight games on the schedule. But Phillips said that thought has to be removed and the team needs to worry just about getting Kentucky better.
“This is a grown man’s league and we can improve but everybody else is improving, too, with some older guys,” Phillips said. “The thing we have to do is continue to see how much we can improve and get this football team better. They are trying to do the same thing and we have to try to match them.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Freshman Fred Tiller was a standout receiver and cornerback in Georgia and an all-state high school selection last season who made a big impression during Kentucky’s preseason camp. He was one of six true freshmen to play for UK in Sunday’s 32-14 loss at Louisville. The backup cornerback had one tackle in his limited playing time. Here’s what he had to say after the game:
Question: How did it feel to play in your first collegiate game?
Tiller: “It felt real good but I wish I could have played more though.”
Question: Is it bittersweet to make your debut in a game where you team is beaten 32-14?
Tiller: “I mean we played our hardest. We came out slow today. The second half we did better. This week we are going to grind and get a win (against Kent State).”
Question: Was the atmosphere what you thought it would be?
Tiller: “It was overwhelming. I loved it. I wish I could have played more like I said.”
Question: Does this loss demoralize, disappoint you?
Tiller: “I am not disappointed. I came to UK for a reason — to win and get better. That won’t change.”
Question: Were they just more physical?
Tiller: “The offensive line, we thought they were not that good, so I guess so. The defensive line could have gone harder. This week we will get better.”
Question: Didn’t this team truly believe it would beat Louisville?
Tiller: “Yes we did. I thought we were going to win, bring home the (Governor’) Cup and just have a good time.”
Question: Did the team maybe underestimate Louisville or overestimate Kentucky?
Tiller: “I don’t even know. I think we underestimated them a little bit. They just came out and I guess they wanted it more.”
Question: Is the defense better than what it showed against Louisville?
Tiller: “It is way better. We just didn’t expect what they were going to come out in today. They surprised us with some things. That two-point conversion and all the deep balls.”
Question: Will we see more from you and other freshman secondary players as the season progresses?
Tiller: “Yes. Like Coach (Joker Phillips) said today, we are one play away from playing a lot. I think we are all going to do some good things.”
Question: Was it a surprise to you to be on the two-deep depth chart for the season-opening game?
Tiller: “No. I worked my butt off this summer. I went hard in the weight room, went hard on the field and got the job. I am gunning for a starting position now.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky’s secondary will have three true freshmen and one player who left the team for personal reasons last season at the backup spots for the four starters for the season-opening game at Louisville Saturday.
I asked UK coach Joker Phillips today to evaluate the strength of those backup players today since he had not talked about the true freshmen during the preseason. Here’s what he had to say:
“Daron Blaylock is the number two guy at safety. He’s a guy that’s really smart, really physical. He was a guy we originally penciled in when we signed him to be a Sam back, the hybrid guy. He’s more athletic than we thought. Smart kid. Comes from a really good background at Walton High School in Marietta (Ga.). So we moved him to safety. We actually had to do it one day when we had a bunch of safeties out. You come out of the lineup, somebody goes in. This guy goes in, was able to get lined up, was able to come down here and make plays for us. Therefore, he will be the backup,” Phillips said.
“Fred Tiller is another guy. I won’t talk about these guys until they play, but he’s a guy that is a really smooth athlete, he’s long. He looks lean, but he’s thicker than he looks. He doesn’t look like a fifth‑year senior. Sixth‑year senior, Trevard Lindley, he’s even thicker than him. He’s a guy that got into our two‑deep.
“Dakotah Tyler, he was really battling for the starting position with Mikie Benton. I think a lot that hurt him, he wasn’t here in the spring and missed a lot of reps. But he’s a guy that’s capable of being a starter before the season is over. Excited about getting him back.
“J.D. Harmon, he was originally a receiver. Our strength and conditioning coaches saw him this summer, saw his athletic ability. When we get down in numbers at the corner position, the one guy that we thought could go over there and line up would be J.D. He’s done an unbelievable job. He’s a real physical guy. He’s a real long guy. Stronger than most freshmen that come in here in the secondary. Therefore, he’ll be one of the backup corners also. Be probably our first guy to go in in our nickel situation. I’m not saying he’ll play nickel, but he’ll be the fifth to go in the game.”