Talent paves way for young UK defense

By Cody Porter | Kernel columnist

It was Homecoming for UK on Saturday against Jacksonville State. A day in which the team is supposed to represent its school and everyone goes home happy to celebrate.

When entering the stadium, I was skeptical as to whether or not many fans were going to do their share of representing the school by supporting their struggling team. Although it was nothing to be proud of, a majority of the lower level did fill in.

My skepticism also applied to the offense and how they would play today, as they were reeling following a four-game losing streak.

The offense performed up to expectation for what I believe is the first time this season, but that’s what they were supposed to do against an Ohio Valley Conference defense.

With all that info aside, the main takeaway was the defense.

As the Under Armour slogan goes, “We Must Protect This House,” and protect Commonwealth Stadium UK did.

The fate of the season and potentially UK head coach Joker Phillips’ job rested on their shoulders against a Jacksonville State team that may be the equivalent of a Cinderella during March Madness with their SEC transfers and success against D-I foes.

Defensive coordinator Rick Minter’s defense did it with big hits, interceptions, fumbles, and players not named Danny Trevathan or Winston Guy, such as Martavius Neloms, Avery Williamson, Donte Rumph and Ridge Wilson stepping up to the challenge.

The most notable of these was junior safety Neloms, whose sack and recovery led to him speeding toward a touchdown that put the Cats up 7-0 early in the game. He credited his fellow defensive backs for providing enough coverage to make the quarterback hold the ball long enough.

“The ball just bounced my way,” Neloms said.

The junior safety also was second on the team in tackles with eight total on the game.

One of the Cats’ youngest linebackers who was one of the biggest influences in the game was Avery Williamson.

Williamson was just one tackle behind Neloms on the stat sheet with seven on the game. Play in and play out he could be found wherever the ball was.

If Williamson can become consistent, he may be the next great linebacker in the recent line of success that they have at UK.

Senior defensive tackle Luke McDermott even got in on the action with an interception off a tipped pass, and came just yards shy of getting six points.

Minter spoke highly of his young guys and their ability to play at the level of Trevathan and Guy.

“When all of our guys play well as a unit, you see what you saw today,” Minter said. “And that’s whether that comes from an Avery (Williamson) or Donte (Rumph), and Mikie Benton coming up and making some nice plays, but it’s a total team effort.”

Let’s not slight the senior linebacker Trevathan or the senior safety Guy though, as they stepped up big in the 38-14 victory.

“Danny and Winston are our heartbeats, we kind of go as they go,” Minter said. “They showed they can get around the football and cause havoc, they can make plays, but it was a team effort. “

Guy and his dreads’ performance on the field can only be likened to the fierce, destructive movie character Predator. And boy was he a Predator on the field. The senior finished with a team-leading 12 total tackles, 10 of which were solo, and two pass break-ups. After a blunder and what seemed like 15-minute break by the referee, they ruled that his late-game interception had hit the ground.

His drop led to a good laugh from Joker Phillips during the post game, who ragged on the safety about his inability to hang onto the ball and gave credit to McDermott for being around the ball.

“We had the defensive lineman catch the ball, Winston dropped two interceptions,” Phillips said. “McDermott is a guy that’s a ball hog. He’s always around the ball.”

For the Cats to make somewhat of a turnaround this season, they are going to need this same core of young defensive players to keep bringing it each week.

A performance like today that can keep the pressure off of Trevathan and Guy, and will put UK in a position to pull out the victory against teams such as Ole Miss and Vanderbilt.

Still, for that to happen, the offense has to give them help.

I left the Commonwealth Stadium press box believing that it may now be possible.