Former UK player Mike Cassity begins his second stint with the Wildcats as an assistant coach, taking over secondary duties from the departed Steve Brown. Cassity brings 37 years of coaching experience back to Lexington, and he may need all of those lessons learned to erase the questions surrounding his position grouping lacking experienced depth.
After claiming one of the starting cornerback positions and earning the praise of the coaching staff throughout spring practice, redshirt freshman Marcus Caffey was ruled academically ineligible and will have to sit out the entire 2012 season. The trickle down will affect both levels of the secondary as senior Martavius Neloms moves back to corner after spending the 2011 season at strong safety. Neloms, always known as a sure tackler even while spending his first two years at UK as a corner, had adjusted nicely to his new safety position finishing 3rd on the team in tackles. One of the fastest players on the team, the coaching staff has been pleased with his transition back to corner and do not expect him to miss a beat. Neloms will play the boundary corner, or short side of the field, and draw more man-to-man responsibilities.
Starting opposite of Neloms at the field corner will be senior Cartier Rice. While Rice is new to the starting lineup, he does bring plenty of experience to the position having played in 29 games throughout his career. The coaches have never questioned his work ethic and were happy to see him grab a starting role during spring ball, and hold onto it during fall camp.
After splitting snaps as a true freshman a year ago at free safety, Ashely Lowery was no doubt going to play a big role in the 2012 defense. When Neloms was moved back to corner, Lowery made the move to strong safety and will take over the starting role there. Lowery really came on at the end of the 2011 season, starting the last two games, and finishing the season with 16 tackles. Noted for his size and athleticism, Lowery is expected to make a big impact in his 2nd season.
Former walk-on Mikie Benton has not only earned a scholarship with his hard work, but he has also earned the starting gig at free safety for the second consecutive year. Benton began earning playing time at corner and on special teams as a sophomore before making the transition to safety. He started all 12 games a year ago totaling 28 tackles and leading the team in pass breakups with seven.
If the secondary suffers any injuries to any of the starters, the backups will be extremely green. The most experienced backup corner is a true sophomore and isn’t currently listed in the two deep on the depth chart, while the most experienced backup safety was out of school a year ago and did not play football. Moreover, at least three true freshmen will see playing time at corner and at least one true freshman will get on the field at safety.
True freshman and walk-on J.D. Harmon is currently listed as Neloms backup at the boundary corner. After practicing with the wide receivers during the summer, Harmon was moved to corner when Caffey was ruled ineligible and has been the talk of fall camp. Harmon turned down a scholarship off from Arkansas State to walk-on at Kentucky in hopes of earning a scholarship, but no one expected him to crack the two-deep this early. He has good size at 6-2 and is stronger than most freshmen secondary players, listed 197 pounds.
The backup to Rice at the other corner is another true freshman Fred Tiller. Tiller was recruited as WR/DB and, again, with Caffey being ruled ineligible the decision was made for the coaching staff. Noted for his length and athleticism, he is drawing comparisons to former All-SEC corner Trevard Lindley. The most experienced corner among the backups on the depth chart is true sophomore Eric Dixon. Dixon played in all 12 games a year ago, splitting time between corner and safety. Look for Dixon to play in nickel situations in the slot. The other corner that is pushing for playing time is Cody Quinn. The coaches would love to redshirt the fleet-footed true freshman, but any injuries will force him onto the field. The fastest member of the secondary, Quinn has been timed as fast as 4.37 seconds in the 40.
After sitting out the 2011 season and missing the entire school year, Dakotah Tyler returned to the team this summer and has earned his way back onto the playing field. Tyler would have pushed Mikie Benton for the starting role at free safety last year but a personal issue put everything on hold. Since returning, he has begun pushing Benton again and don’t be surprised if the former running back is the starter once he gets some game reps.
True freshman Daron Blaylock began fall camp at the sam safety/linebacker, before settling in at strong safety. At 6-1 and 215, he has impressed the coaches with his physicality and intelligence. His twin brother, Zack, is also a freshman safety, but is expected to redshirt. Both Blaylock’s are blessed with good genes as their father is former NBA player, Mookie Blaylock.
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