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By LARRY VAUGHT
Creating more turnovers, especially interceptions, has been a point of emphasis for UK’s defense in spring practice.
“We always track our turnovers, and not only do we track the ones that we get, we track the ones that we should’ve gotten, and we make the corrections on that. And I think that we’re getting better at that. We are. We’re getting better,” defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said.
“I think we led the league in fumbles recovered (last year), but then we were last in interceptions. We’re not emphasizing it any more, but it’s a strong emphasis on defense in general.”
Head coach Mark Stoops did like that the defense got several interceptions Friday and hopes junior college transfer A.J. Stamps helps the Cats in this area from his safety position.
“I think just having A.J. (Stamps) back there helps us, gives us gives us a little bit more athletic (player). J.D. Harmon coming back at corner gives us some more versatility and more depth, so those two guys help,” Stoops said.
Both are former receivers and Stoops said it is easy to see Stamps’ skills.
“He’s got good athletic ability and he’s giving us some options back there, a lot tighter coverage, so that’s helped,” the UK coach said.
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
While Kentucky has played a lot of true freshmen this season, coach Mark Stoops says there are also players being redshirted who could have played this season and easily could start next season.
“Some of the linemen (could start). Ramsey’s a guy that jumps out, Ramsey Meyers, right away. He’s got good size to him. I want to say he’s in the 330 (pound) range right now. And again, he plays very hard. He’s nasty and athletic. He’s a guy that can help us inside definitely,” said Stoops. “Kyle Meadows. I like Kyle and all those guys, really.”
On the defensive side, he again mentioned lineman Regie Meant.
“He’s gained probably 20, 30 pounds. He’s probably 290 right now,” Stoops said. “Jacob Hyde has changed his body. He really works hard. I’m really proud of Jacob. I think he’s been a big, strong guy, but he’s actually leaned up a little bit and getting more flexibility and working hard.”
Offensive coordinator Neal Brown says redshirting certain linemen — even if they could have helped this season — was the right thing to do.
“Here’s the way I look at it: Let’s look at Jordan Swindle; Jordan Swindle is a sophomore right now. Now if he was a redshirt freshman doing what he’s doing, then you’re like, ‘Whoa.’ You know what I mean?” Brown said. “So I just believe that from a wear-and-tear standpoint up front, the right thing is to redshirt those guys.
“They’re going to be so much better as redshirt freshman and have four … they have a chance to have four great years, where this year it would’ve been up and down. Now by this time could they help us? No question. Would they have been a factor Week one, two or three? Probably not.”
Brown said those players being redshirted have taken advantage of the chance to lift more weights to get stronger.
“Like Kyle Meadows is a great example. He’s put on anywhere from 10 to 15 pounds just from preseason camp. And those guys, because those guys are lifting; they’re not traveling and those guys are able to spend more time in the weight room. Not worrying about conditioning right now, but just from a strength standpoint, they would not have gotten as strong as they are right now,” Brown said.
Brown also sees talent on the defensive scout team he faces daily.
“Regie Meant’s the first one who jumps out. Regie Meant, he’s going to be a big factor,” Brown said. “I don’t want to speak for (defensive coordinator) D.J. (Eliot) or Mark (Stoops), but he’s going to be a major factor in what they’re doing. And J.D. (Harmon) unfortunately is over there (because he’s academically ineligible) and he did it to himself, but I mean he’s over there and he’s athletically, and you know, he played a lot of football last year and he’s a guy from an athletic standpoint will definitely help.
“And Melvin Lewis is a kid, who if he continues to get in shape and continues to get stronger and takes coaching, he’s a guy in there who can be a factor, too.”
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
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
One of the few feel-good stories about Kentucky’s 2012 football season was the emergence of Paducah Tilghman walk-on cornerback J.D. Harmon.
Not only did he get to play in all 12 games in the 2-10 season, but he started the final three games. He led the team in interceptions (two) and tied for second in pass breakups (four). He had 24 tackles, including seven at Missouri.
Harmon was expected to compete again for playing time, and maybe even a starting spot, for new coach Mark Stoops and help provide depth in a secondary lacking proven playmakers. However, that’s not going to happen. Stoops confirmed earlier this week that Harmon was no longer with the team.
What happened? What did the three-sport standout in high school do to jeopardize his college career after he worked so hard last year to prove that he could play in the Southeastern Conference?
Simple. He didn’t maintain the needed academic standing. He was in the academic doghouse most of the offseason and had to be reinstated to the team earlier this summer. Randy Wyatt, Harmon’s high school coach and a former UK player, said his understanding was that Harmon’s “GPA was not high enough to play this fall.”
Wyatt plans to get with Stoops to see if Harmon is wanted back on the football team or not, something Stoops did not elaborate on earlier this week.
“The kid is plenty smart. He is willing to fix it and get his grades right. I know he can do it, too,” Wyatt said. “Sometimes as a freshman you get caught up in things, and that’s what happened to him. Now I just want to do what it takes to make sure my kid gets in the right place for him and his education.
“It’s one of those unfortunate things. He never had a problem of any kind in high school. He’s a good kid. He just did not have his priorities straight. We had a long conversation and told him he had to understand college football is business first. He’s got to understand if UK does not want him back, he can’t be mad at UK. He has to look first at himself in the mirror. He can’t point fingers. He should never have been in this situation where he had to struggle to get eligible.”
Hopefully Harmon is listening closely to Wyatt. The veteran coach won’t abandon Harmon, but he won’t sugar-coat who is to blame here. Wyatt knows what it takes to stay eligible academically because he did it at Kentucky. Wyatt also knows he’ll not hold any grudge against Stoops or UK no matter what the coach decides.
“Whatever decision the UK staff makes, I support Stoops. I understand the situation,” Wyatt said. “The bottom line is he has to look in the mirror at the end of the day. He’s still my kid and I want him to get his education. But I’ve got to be honest and up front with kids. That’s how they respect you.
“This is a business at UK. It’s not high school. No one has a four-year contract. You have to take care of business every day.”
Wyatt hopes one option will be for Harmon to stay in school at UK, improve his grades and rejoin the football team the second semester. If not, Wyatt will understand Stoops’ decision if Harmon is not allowed to play at UK again.
“There will be no hard feelings on my end. They’ve got to do what they do,” Wyatt said. “It’s a learning lesson for him (Harmon). He should never have been in this situation. Whatever Stoops decides, I’ll respect that and he will still be welcome to recruit any of my players in the future. It’s not Stoops’ fault that he (Harmon) is in this spot.”
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
Because he didn’t accept Kentucky’s scholarship offer soon enough, J.D. Harmon had to make an even bigger sacrifice to join the football team as a walk-on player. He had academic scholarship money that he had to turn down to play football because if he had accepted it, he would have counted against UK’s scholarship total. Kentucky coach Joker Phillips also offered him a chance to grayshirt and not enroll until January, but Harmon wanted to play.
“He wanted to come in and play. So the only option for him was to pay his own way,” Phillips said. “For him to do that speaks volumes because he had to give up some academic money to do it. I’m really happy that he did get here.”
Harmon, who will go on scholarship before next season, had his best game in last Saturday’s loss at Missouri when he intercepted two passes to start the second half. He also had a career-high seven tackles after going into the game early when starting cornerback Cody Quinn injured his hamstring. Harmon shared his thoughts on his journey from Paducah Tilghman High School to UK.
Question: How do you view this season since you have gone from a relatively unknown walk-on receiver to a contributor as a true freshman in the secondary?
Harmon: “I am very proud. It takes a lot of hard work and patience. I have just been waiting for my name to be called. I do anything these ask. It just comes with being that guy that guy comes in and does what all the coaches want with hard work. It pays off with patience. You just have to wait.”
Question: It’s not easy for non-scholarship players to impress coaches, so what did you do to catch the coaches’ eyes so quick?
Harmon: “I just worked hard in the weight room. When we ran, I tried to be first and challenged a couple of freshmen. When they needed something to be done, I did it. I showed I was really dedicated to earning my scholarship and that I could play with these guys without the scholarship. I just wanted to play.”
Question: Did you come to UK expecting to be a receiver?
Harmon: “When I first came here, I was playing receiver. I was working with LaRod King and Darryl Collins and all the other receivers. Then with the situation with Marcus Caffey (being academically ineligible), coach Phillips talked to me about moving to corner. It was what was best for the team, and I am a team guy. I felt if that was what needed to be done, I would do it. I didn’t have any problem. I went both ways in high school.”
Question: How long did it take you to realize you could play this year at cornerback even as a walk-on?
Harmon: “Probably during (preseason) camp. It wasn’t like everybody had a set position. It was more like you work hard, you earn your position and your dues in the program. I felt like everybody that plays on defense earned that playing time and bought into the program. We outworked each other. We pushed each other to work hard.”
Question: What has the reaction in Paducah been to your success?
Harmon: “Everybody back home is really proud of me. I call them a lot. I still talk to football coach Randy Wyatt every day. I check in with the football team and see how they are doing. They are all proud of me. It’s good.”
Question: How big a role did coach Wyatt play in your career?
Harmon: “He played the biggest role. He was the guy that sat me down and told me I had the potential to be a D-1 athlete. He pushed me harder than any coach I had coming up. He played a big role. I kind of viewed him as a dad. He called me son and I called him dad. If I need somebody to talk to, I can talk to coach Wyatt about. He played in a big role in all of this and I thank him for that.”
Question: Did the fact he played at UK influence you to come to Kentucky at all?
Harmon: “Yeah, and (redshirt freshman linebacker) Josh Forrest of course. I grew up with Josh and playing beside him again had a big impact, too.”
Question: Is it hard at times not being on scholarship or is that no big deal?
Harmon: “It’s no big deal. I am treated as equal as any guy here. There is no favoritism anywhere in the program. We are all seen and viewed equally. It plays no big role at all.”
Question: Did you grow up a Kentucky fan?
Harmon: “No. I kind of grew into a Kentucky fan in high school. In middle school and early high school, college football really did not interest me that much until coach Wyatt told me I had the potential to be a D-1 athlete. I kind of looked at some schools and Kentucky stood out to me early in my career. So I guess I was a Kentucky fan.”
Question: Since you also ran track and played basketball, did you not have a favorite sport growing up?
Harmon: “I started playing football in the second grade and played up with the third graders. I didn’t pick up a basketball until sixth grade. I started running track freshman year and did long jump and triple jump. I didn’t sprint that much. I really wasn’t all that fast until my sophomore year. I worked hard that summer. Junior and senior years I was on relays and won state in triple jump and long jump a couple of times.”
Question: What has the most enjoyable part of this season for you?
Harmon: “What is enjoyable is how we are all staying together. We are still a team. Despite the outcome of the season and how it is going so far, we still have a lot to fight for. The relationship with the older guys is really enjoyable. I look up to all of them. All those guys are like brothers to me. They took us under their wins. The relationship and how the team is staying together is really enjoyable. We are still fighting for the rest of the season and we want to try and finish this out right and send the seniors off with wins.”
Question: What would you say to UK fans worried about the program’s future?
Harmon: “Our team is pretty young, so we have a lot of guys coming back. I feel, and I am pretty sure the rest of the team feels, that with all the guys coming back there is not really a sense we need to rebuild. We are just going to keep building on what we already have. We have played a lot of young guys getting experience we need for next year. I think we are going to have a really bright future ahead of us if we stay on the same task, stay as a team, work hard, push each other. I think next season will be a really big season. We are going to shock the world next season and finish out this season to use as motivation to take us into the next season. It should be good.”
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
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.”