Defensive backfield should draw Stoops’ focus

Kentucky Wildcats cornerback J.D. Harmon (15) tackles Samford player during the first half of the UK Football game v. Samford at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky., on Saturday, November 17, 2012. Photo by Genevieve Adams | Staff

By Alex Forkner | @AlexFork3

When UK suited up for last Saturday’s scrimmage at Commonwealth Stadium, the team was coming off a week where the defense had its way with the offense, getting the better of it in blitz, seven-on-seven and team drills.

By scrimmage’s end, it was the offense that had prevailed.

“I think for the first time since I’ve been here I had one side really take over and make some plays and dominate a practice or a scrimmage,” head coach Mark Stoops said. “Really did a nice job offensively today, really disappointed defensively.

“I didn’t see great execution. I didn’t see great toughness. I saw poor leverage. I saw a lot of bad football on the defensive side of the ball. I saw bad body language and a lot of things I was disappointed in.”

On Monday, Stoops wasn’t as downtrodden about his defense but said there was still a lot of work to do.

“The offense did extremely well and beat the defense overall, but there were some good things defensively overall,” he said. “We just need to get some depth.”

A key area where depth is desperately needed is the defensive backfield. Last season, UK would routinely trot out four true freshmen. Seeing action in Division I football fresh out of high school and preforming well is a tall task in any conference; in the SEC it’s nearly unheard of.

Stoops will probably have to take a special interest in this group to monitor its development. In fact, sophomore cornerback Cody Quinn, one of those young’uns to see the battlefield last year, said the head coach worked with his group on Monday.

“He came over there and basically did the individual (drill) with us,” Quinn said. “That helps when you have the head coach there teaching you everything. I was kind of tired after our individual today, but it helps, though.”

Quinn, who started six games as a freshman and led the team with five pass breakups, said his experience last year has given him a head start this spring. He now understands the pace and energy necessary to play corner at a high level.

Another of those battle-worn defensive backs from a season ago, J.D. Harmon, said the simplicity of the new defensive scheme will help his and his teammates’ development this season.

“The plays last year were just a little bit complex for us,” said Harmon, who came to UK as a walk-on last season and ended up starting the last three games of the season and leading the team with two interceptions. “At a young age, a young mind, I couldn’t really grasp it as well, but with this coaching staff and scheme it’s a lot more easy and hands-on. It’s a lot easier to learn.”

Defensive back play has always been a bugaboo for UK defenses. Generations of fans have agonized over cornerbacks who don’t get their heads around and safeties who let receivers get behind them.

Changing that troublesome tradition will take some time, but the present lot of players could prove to be sufficient building blocks for the future. By the time Quinn and Harmon and the rest are juniors and seniors, they’ll have a wealth of experience and, as Stoops and company are surely hoping, a stable of serviceable substitutes waiting down the depth chart.

Maybe, just maybe, the days of opponents’ open receivers streaking to touchdowns will be over. Well, fewer and farther between, anyway.