Experience in the secondary created high preseason expectations for the 2021 Kentucky defense. In the first road test of the season, two of the youngest defensive backs on the field were the difference-makers, Carrington Valentine and Jalen Geiger.
The two young Wildcats accounted for six of the team’s 48 tackles, but those numbers don’t paint a clear picture of the impact each player made Saturday night at South Carolina.
Geiger was on the radar of few fans entering the season. No. 34 popped off the page in a few critical situations, making an open-field tackle on third down to force a punt and recording a critical tackle for loss that stalled a South Carolina fourth quarter drive. Valentine had an impressive third down tackle and the sweetest sack of the season so far, finessing the running back to get home on a cornerback blitz.
Opponents Attack Valentine
Until Octavious Oxendine was promoted to a starter this week, Carrington Valentine was the only non-senior starting on the UK defense. Opposing coaches knew that and brought the heat early and often. The sophomore welcomes the challenge.
“I knew that even last year when I got on the field and they saw me that they were going after me,” Valentine said recently. “It’s just kind of a thing I embrace. It’s the kind of thing I like, just more opportunities to get the ball.”
On the final play of the Missouri game, the Tigers went after the sophomore and he made a play on the ball, breaking up the pass to end the game. When his number was called to bring pressure against South Carolina, he was prepared to make the game-changing play. Carrington Valentine may not win every battle, but he has the short-term memory to move on to the next play.
“He’s got a great competitive nature about him and has really stepped up and played well.” Stoops said, “He competes and he’s getting better with every opportunity. He realizes in these games as he plays more and more reps and is in one-on-one situations, the stronger the base, the technique he needs to play with and I think he’s very conscientious and is working at it.”
Geiger is the Hometown Hero
Jalen Geiger is no stranger to Williams-Brice Stadium. A Columbia native, he’s experienced the Sandstorm from the stands. Saturday night the redshirt sophomore was prepared to silence the stadium.
“It meant a lot. Growing up, watching the Gamecocks, just to come home and get this win, it’s real big for us. It’s a blessing,” said Jalen Geiger.
“I already knew it was going to be rocking. A night game, SEC on the road, I knew the crowd was going to be into it, so we just had to step up to the challenge and we did.”
Geiger earned Player of the Game honors from the UK Sports Network following his outstanding plays in crunch time. Geiger played only played 12 snaps, but made the most of his opportunity. He received the highest PFF grade (84.1) of any Wildcat on Saturday.
“It was really good for Jalen. I think he’s the type of player, like most guys, they just need some reps. I think it’s a confidence factor, once he get’s playing more and more, you see him getting better as this season is going on.”
Stoops said Monday, “I really thought he played his best game and got some good quality reps this past Saturday and made some really important plays for us. I was happy for him, going back to his hometown and really playing well.”
Valentine and Geiger are not immune from making inexperienced mistakes. What’s important is that they are learning from them and making the most of their early opportunities.