Maxwell Hairston emerging as playmaker in Kentucky secondary

On3 imageby:Jack Pilgrim09/17/23

If there was one defensive player who jumped off the screen in real-time during Kentucky’s 35-3 victory over Akron in week three, it was sophomore defensive back Maxwell Hairston. The 6-foot-1 corner out of West Bloomfield, Mich. finished with a team-high seven tackles (five solo) to go with one tackle for loss, flying to the football and making plays from sideline to sideline.

It’s been a long journey for the third-year Wildcat, who redshirted in 2021 before totaling two tackles in 12 games as a redshirt freshman in 2022. A former three-star recruit, development was always going to the name of the game with Hairston. But he’s settled in nicely and the patience is paying off.

“He’s starting to get comfortable. He’s feeling the game, and that’s what happens,” Kentucky defensive coordinator Brad White said of Hairston. “You just have to get reps and you have to get playing time. We knew that would happen.”

He’s picked up 19 total tackles (13 solo) on the year to go with one interception vs. Eastern Kentucky and a forced fumble to open the season vs. Ball State. No fewer than four tackles in a game through three weeks. Consistent production with an expanded role in the secondary.

Hairston will admit it feels good to finally put things together and execute the way he knows he’s capable of doing. The defense is as a whole, allowing just 11.3 points per game — three against Akron while giving up 239 total yards.

“Felt good, what was working right was just us,” the sophomore defensive back said after the win. “You know — following the call, doing our jobs, and just pursuing the ball.”

Success coming from the film room

Third-down defense has been a weakness for this team to open the season, allowing nine conversions on 17 attempts against Ball State, followed by six conversions on 12 attempts vs. EKU — 51.5% overall. It wasn’t a flawless display against the Zips, but progress nonetheless, allowing just six conversions on 15 attempts overall for 40.0%. And that was probably the ‘worst’ part of Kentucky’s defense on Saturday.

Again, three points, 3.6 yards per play, 6.6 yards per completion, 2.0 yards per rush. There really wasn’t a whole lot to hate.

“What we did was we just looked at their top route concepts — looked at what they did on normal and down distance, first and second or third down,” Hairston said of what his defense saw against the Zips. “We just looked at their formations and when we would see what they lined up in, we already had a tail because we’ve been studying it all week — so we knew how to play it.”

Among a long list of bright spots for the unit in the win, Hairston was arguably the brightest. The physical corner did his job in pass coverage, but was a wrecking ball in the open field. It’s something he’s been working on and plans to continue putting on display during SEC play.

“That’s something I definitely worked on,” Hairston said. “I want to be a good tackler and I feel like every week you’re getting better attacking, but it’s just something you always have to keep working on.”

That starts next week when the Wildcats head to Nashville to take on Vanderbilt in the conference opener.

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