4pm ET | SEC Network
There has been plenty of buzz this fall in the media, as well as scouting circles, about Kentucky outside linebacker Josh Allen, and rightfully so. But, all that attention has overshadowed on of the nation’s best position groups—the Kentucky defensive backfield. While Allen is undeniably one of the most improved and impactful players we’ve seen this year, his teammates in the secondary are similarly responsible for the No. 12 ranked Wildcats’ surprising 6-1 start.
It is rare when the top five players in any position group are all seniors and that’s exactly what the Wildcats have this year in the cornerback trio of Lonnie Johnson, Derrick Baity, and Chris Westry and the safety duo of Mike Edwards and Darius West. The combination of Johnson, Baity, Edwards, and West have started all seven games so far this season with Westry rotating in on the perimeter.
The experience in this fivesome is incredible, as they have collectively started 138 games heading into Saturday’s showdown with SEC East rival Missouri. Just from a communication standpoint, the familiarity this group has is invaluable but when you also factor in the actual talent into the equation that’s what makes this a special group for the college level.
Here is a brief breakdown of each senior in the Wildcat secondary:
· Edwards: returning first-team All-SEC…9 career INT…good athlete…very instinctive…good feel playing in the slot…aggressive blitzer…NFL teams will like his nickel/FS position flexibility
· West: loose athlete for safety…aggressive downhill player…can tackle in space…good awareness reading the QB and feeling threats in the backend…has interchangeable FS/SS skill-set
· Johnson: intriguing press-man tools…can turn and run and shows a gear-change when he needs it versus vertical routes…his length shows up when he plays around WR and finishes
· Baity: length is top attribute…efficient in transition for taller CB…flashes good catchup speed…staff thinks he will run fast at Combine…scouts want him to be more physical
· Westry: started every game as true frosh in ’15…lost starting spot to Johnson this year…also runs track for Kentucky…hard-to-find combination of length/speed will get him a chance in NFL
When Missouri quarterback Drew Lock watches tape this week, the first thing that will probably stand out is the sheer size of the cornerbacks. Johnson, Baity, and Westry are all listed at 6-3 or taller so they fit the current NFL prototype at the position. Scouts are always looking for tall, longer-bodied corners and all three of these guys fit that profile.
One of the big reasons why NFL teams covet length so much is because they are difficult to throw over downfield and thus it is hard to hit explosive chunk plays against them. Kentucky’s corners will test Lock’s deep accuracy and trajectory this week. A key for Lock will be putting enough air under the ball on deep throws to get over the “defensive radius” of guys like Johnson, who most scouts believe will be the first Wildcat DB taken in April’s draft. The term “catch radius” is frequently used to describe the expansive target area of bigger receivers and defensive radius is just as important for defensive backs who are charged with defending bigger receivers like Missouri senior wideout Emanuel Hall, who has missed time with a lingering groin injury.
Without Hall stretching the field on the perimeter, Lock has taken fewer vertical shots in recent games and last week he did an excellent job of getting talented redshirt sophomore TE Albert Okwuegbunam involved (6 rec., 159 yards, 3 TD). With a disruptive pass rusher like Josh Allen coming off the edge, look for Lock to get the ball out of his hand fast to Okwuegunam and for safeties Edwards and West to play critical roles in pass coverage down the middle of the field on Saturday.
In a draft class where none of the top-rated QB have clearly separated themselves this year, Lock can help himself with a good game against a secondary with potentially four or five draft picks. Strictly based on arm talent, which we saw firsthand last summer at the Manning Passing Camp, Lock should be in the first-round conversation throughout the pre-draft process.
Clemson CB Mark Fields vs. Florida State WR Nyqwan Murray
Murray is a super explosive WR who will be challenged by the natural athleticism and cover ability of Fields, who needs a strong second half of the season to challenge for a Senior Bowl roster spot.
Cincinnati DT Marquise Copeland vs. SMU OG Nick Natour
Copeland and Natour are both undersized in the interior but have impressive movement skills to make up for it. This is a battle the NFL and Senior Bowl scouts are very interested in watching.
NC State OC Garrett Bradbury vs. Syracuse DT Chris Slayton
Bradbury was spotlighted last week for his matchup with Clemson’s Christian Wilkins and he will be put to the test again against the powerful Syracuse 3-technique Chris Slayton.
Miami DT Gerald Willis vs. Boston College OG Chris Lindstrom
Willis’ swim move has terrorized offensive linemen all season so we are interested in seeing how the technical and experienced Lindstrom handles it. This might be the first tape that NFL decision-makers watch in draft meetings on both players.
New Mexico State LB Terrill Hanks vs. Texas State TE Keenen Brown
If Hanks’ ankle is good to go, he will be able to showcase his NFL potential against Brown, who is taking advantage of his graduate transfer season coming from Oklahoma State. Both players are getting buzz on the road among scouts.
-- Jim Nagy, Reese's Senior Bowl Executive Director