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The UK football team’s fall camp could not have started much worse for the defensive backs.
On media day, UK head coach Joker Phillips announced starting redshirt freshman cornerback Marcus Caffey was academically ineligible for the fall semester and would miss the season. Phillips had spent much of the spring and summer raving about Caffey’s skills at the position after moving from tailback prior to spring practice.
With Caffey out of the picture, UK moved senior safety Martavius Neloms to cornerback, where he spent the first two seasons in Lexington.
“I found out just a couple days before you all did,” Neloms said of Caffey’s ineligibility. “It was something new to me, but I knew it was something I still had to do.”
In two seasons at cornerback, Neloms totaled 69 tackles and four pass break ups. As a junior at safety, Neloms was third on the team with 71 tackles, including one sack. He added one interception and five pass breakups in 2011.
“The reason why Martavius moved to safety is because you had three of our better players at corner last year,” Phillips said. “He was the more physical guy, so we moved him to safety. The reason why we’re moving him back to corner is because our biggest depth is at the safety position.”
Caffey was singled out for his size and physicality as a cornerback. Neloms demonstrated some of that same physicality at safety. He leads all returners in tackles from 2011 and even totaled two and one-half tackles for a loss last season.
“I still have that physicality about me,” Neloms said. “I still want to be physical wherever I’m lined up on the field.”
Neloms admitted the first day of practice after the move was “pretty rough,” but defensive backs coach Mike Cassity said Neloms has since caught on at the position.
“You can tell he played there,” Cassity said. “It’s been a big, big plus, him being at corner.”
Neloms will be joined in the secondary starting lineup by senior cornerback Cartier Rice, senior safety Mike Benton and sophomore safety Ashely Lowery.
Junior Dakotah Tyler, who recently returned to the team after a year away from football, and freshmen Daron Blaylock are pushing for playing time at the safety positions. Freshmen corner backs J. D. Harmon, Fred Tiller and Cody Quinn have also stood out in camp, Cassity said.
Phillips said one of the freshmen, though he declined to name which one, has a chance to start at nickel back in certain formations.
“All three of those (freshmen cornerbacks) have shown that they can run, they can flip their hips,” Cassity said. “They’ve got a lot to learn. I’ll take athletic talent and want-to and work ethic. They have that.”
Depth in the secondary has already taken a hit this fall. In addition losing Caffey to academic ineligibility, UK has lost freshman defensive back Shawn Blaylock for the season with a knee injury and sophomore safety Glenn Faulkner for six to eight weeks after ankle surgery.
“It’s getting thinner every day because you lose kids,” said UK defensive coordinator Rick Minter. “That’s life in the SEC and in major-college football. You lose kids. Injuries are part of the game. Our motto is next man in, no matter who it is.”
UK defensive backs have adopted Minter’s mentality in filling in for their injured and ineligible teammates.
“When you go out there on gameday, they’re not going to ask you what grade you’re in or how old you are,” Rice said. “It’s next man in to go out there and compete. Definitely we’re out here competing. We’ve got guys next to us who are going to have our backs.”
The youth among the second-team defensive backs has shown during practice at times this fall, Minter said.
“We kind of have a generation gap on the back end: they’ve either played a lot or have not played at all,” he said. “We’ve got a mix there. When some of those older kids are out for whatever reason, all of the sudden you’re really, really young and it shows against a good, solid offensive football team like we have.”
With so many young faces in the secondary, the play of Neloms and Rice at the two cornerback positions has become that much moor important. Asked for a progress report on those players, Cassity didn’t mince words.
“We expected both of them would be solid guys in the secondary, and so far they’ve shown that,” he said. “Are we where we need to be? No. Will we be? Yes.”
During UK’s fall football camp, KyForward sports editor Jon Hale will be providing a position-by-position look at some new faces and storylines to watch for the 2012 UK football season.. Previous stories in the series include features about the quarterbacks, defensive linemen, tailbacks, wide receivers, linebackers and tight ends.