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Kentucky has effectively improved secondary in offseason

Adam Luckett05/19/22

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Article written by:On3 imageAdam Luckett

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(Dr. Michael Huang | Kentucky Sports Radio)

Kentucky’s pass defense took a step back in 2021. The coaching staff entered the offseason knowing some changes needed to be made.

Quandre Mosely saw his eligibility expire while both Cedrick Dort Jr. (Wisconsin), Moses Douglass (Alabama A&M), and Rickey Hyatt (TBD) hit the transfer portal. To replace the losses, Kentucky signed four high school prospects — Alex Afari, Kobi Albert, Elijah Reed, and Andre Stewart — to add depth. In the transfer portal, the Wildcats signed three players — Zion Childress, Jordan Robinson, and Keidron Smith — to play roles on the 2022 team.

After starting the season 6-0 in 2021 with some strong performances, defensive coordinator Brad White started to see some weaknesses in his unit. During a three-game losing streak in SEC play, the Wildcats saw consecutive quarterbacks pass for 303.3 yards per game, logged an 82.3 percent completion rate, post 11.5 yards per attempt, tossing eight touchdowns, and zero interceptions. Georgia, Mississippi State, and Tennessee averaged a combined 35.3 points per game as the pass defense was eviscerated.

For the season, the Wildcats saw high numbers allowed in yards per attempt (7.1) and passer rating (137.65) as the defense posted its worst numbers since 2017 when foes scored 28.2 points and averaged 6.2 yards per play against Kentucky. The injury bug hurt the front as Kentucky dealt with front seven injuries during the last part of 2021, but the Wildcats simply did not have the bodies needed in the secondary.

Yusuf Corker (793) and Carrington Valentine (777) both had very high snap counts as Kentucky simply did not have depth at the position under first-year secondary coach Chris Collins last season. The Wildcats have changed that in 2022. Let’s take a look at a projected depth chart entering the season:

  • Boundary cornerback: 1. Keidron Smith (6-2, 210, Super Senior), 2. Jordan Robinson (6-4, 193, Sophomore)
  • Free safety: 1. Jalen Geiger (6-1, 200, Redshirt Junior), 2. Jordan Lovett (6-2, 195, Redshirt Freshman)
  • Strong safety: 1. Tyrell Ajian (6-0, 190, Super Senior), 2. Taj Dodson (6-1, 198, Redshirt Junior)
  • Field cornerback: 1. Carrington Valentine (6-0, 200, Junior), 2. Andru Phillips (5-11, 180, Redshirt Sophomore)
  • Medium: 1. Zion Childress (6-0, 195, Junior), 2. Joel Williams (6-1, 204, Junior)

The first big recruiting win came when the coaching staff got former top-200 recruit Tyrell Ajian back in the lineup for his sixth season on campus. The safety with solid coverage skills should lead the group after starting 21 games over the last two seasons.

Elsewhere at safety, Jalen Geiger played a big role in key moments for the Kentucky defense last year and will slide in to take the spot left by Corker. Class of 2021 signee Jordan Lovett appeared to be one of the stars of spring camp, and the future is bright. Taj Dodson enters year four in the program but has been hampered by injuries for most of his career.

At cornerback, Carrington Valentine returns for year three, and the coaching staff still thinks highly of the junior. To address the other spot, Kentucky dipped into the transfer and landed Ole Miss transfer Smith. With a track record of ball production to go with solid length, the fifth-year player was a big add. Andru Phillips returns and is fresh off a big spring, but the addition of Division II transfer Robinson shows that the program is still looking for depth at the position.

At the fifth spot, Kentucky was dealt a blow early in spring ball as Vito Tisdale was lost for the season due to a knee injury. That left the nickel position wide open. Former four-star recruit Joel Williams is in the mix. Kentucky had an obvious need at the position. Late in the process, the coaching staff addressed that by landing Texas State transfer Childress over TCU and Washington. The former high school quarterback was a willing tackler in the Sun Belt with positional versatility while flashing solid coverage ability at multiple positions.

Kentucky is entering a big year with sky-high expectations. The buzz continues to build for the program throughout the offseason. However, the secondary was a concern for the Wildcats. The program did not land any bonafide stars, but the program enhanced a weakness in the offseason.

At cornerback, both Smith and Valentine should be quality SEC starters with a couple of developmental players behind them to supply depth. At safety, both Ajian and Geiger have starting experience as Dodson and Lovett are capable pieces to utilize in a rotation. At nickel, Kentucky lost a huge piece with the Tisdale injury, but adding Childress gives the team another potential quality starter while Williams has one of the highest ceilings on the team.

Incoming summer enrollees Afari and Albert have bright futures, but the defense will not be dependent on them playing immediately. Through development and key transfer portal adds, Kentucky was able to get old in the secondary and has the pieces in place to play winning football.

The Kentucky secondary might not be a huge difference-maker in 2022, but the coaching staff solved a problem, and that should help raise the floor of the defense after that weakness was exposed in 2021.

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