LEXINGTON, Ky. — This is the seventh edition of an eight-part series that will break down every Kentucky position group.
Who do the Wildcats have coming back, which newcomers could emerge and who looks in line to start next season? These are all questions we’ll focus on day by day.
Next up? The defensive backs.
Kentucky defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot had a “Mike Edwards is” moment in the week following the Wildcats’ win against Vanderbilt. In it were several descriptors of the sophomore safety that emerged as one of Kentucky’s top players in 2016. Just read what Eliot said:
“Mike is an extremely good player. Mike is arguably the best player on our defense. Mike is very smart. Mike is very athletic. Mike is our best cover guy. Mike is probably our best as coach says ‘football IQ’ guy on defense. Mike may be our best tackler. Mike may be our best blitzer.”
Mike Edwards is a lot of things for Kentucky’s defense including a leader among the defensive backs. With senior safeties Blake McClain, Marcus McWilson and senior cornerback J.D. Harmon graduating, leadership in the defensive backfield will shift to Edwards’ shoulders next season.
Edwards was second on the team with 93 tackles and he twice intercepted likely Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson in Kentucky’s regular season finale.
The Wildcats ranked sixth in the SEC in total pass defense, surrendering 215 yards per game through the air, but passing touchdowns were a glaring weakness. Kentucky allowed 20 passing touchdowns. Only Mississippi State was worse in the SEC.
The sophomore cornerback duo of Chris Westry and Derrick Baity were hyped heading into the season, but the two still have a lot of room to grow.
Edwards, Baity and Westry all started games as freshmen. The trio was entrenched as starters in their sophomore seasons. Each will be a key returnee in the defensive backfield as McClain, McWilson and Harmon depart.
The coaching staff is giddy on the potential of freshman cornerback Jordan Griffin. Fellow freshman corner Davonte Robinson is also expected to see a bigger role.
Depth at safety will be the bigger question for the Wildcats. Junior Kendall Randolph served as the primary backup for Edwards at strong safety. He’ll be back, but the free safety spot is open given McClain and McWilson’s departures.
Look for sophomore Darius West to compete for the starting spot. West missed the season due to a knee tear but is expected back in full health for spring ball.
Other returning defensive backs: Redshirt freshman safety Marcus Walker, redshirt freshmen cornerbacks Kei Beckham and Isaiah Brown, freshman defensive backs Tobias Gilliam, Jack Jackson, and Casius Smith,
Incoming defensive backs: 3-star CB Michael Nesbitt (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.), 3-star CB Cedrick Dort (Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.)