UK Position Analysis: Defensive Backs

A young and untested secondary could hold the key to the Cats' hopes this season...

LEXINGTON, Ky.  --- It's a typical day at a typical Kentucky practice when Derrick Tatum throws a wrinkle into the scenario.

A play develops with receiver Dougie Allen hauling in a pass along the sideline. As he's heading out of bounds, Allen is hammered by a pair of defenders eager to impress a new coaching staff stressing a more aggressive style of play. One of them drives Allen into the ground well out of bounds in front of Tatum.

Derrick Tatum

In the not-so-distant past, this was Tatum's element. Everyone within a block of the Nutter Center would have heard a heavy dose of Ali-caliber smack talk as he hovered above the fallen receiver. Defenders would have joined in the fun; the offense would have fumed.

But not this time. Not this season.

"Man, you can't do be doing that," Tatum tells his defensive teammates. "That's Dougie Allen. We gotta have him."

Yes, a new day has dawned for the junior cornerback. The talk is still there --- as well as the confident swagger --- but it's being channeled in a different manner.

"I tell you what, his mouth has changed. He's mellowed it down with some advice from his coach," UK secondary coach Rick Smith said with a wink. "He's now positive. He's a reinforcer, not an antagonizer. He's trying to be a leader and an encourager of men, and people are starting to look at him a little differently.

"You can hear him on the sideline trying to coach a kid that's younger than him, encouraging guys, and they're listening to him. He's really changed his personality, and people feel better about him. I feel better about him, and I think he feels better about himself."

"He was big about me working on my people skills and becoming more of a team leader," Tatum said of Smith. "After first, I didn't know how to do that, but I'm learning. I try to pick up my teammates and help them... even the receivers."

Tatum said his old persona was a product of his background in Cleveland.

"I'm not from the suberbs or the best neighborhood," he said. "Where I come from, nobody thought I was going to make it, so there's always been that chip on my shoulder, trying to outdo the other person, and sometimes that's where the talking came from. You couldn't show any sign of weakness, so you had to speak up. I've tried to tone it down a bit and learn how to control it, but I think I'll always be that competitive."

The UK staff is hoping the new outlook translates into more big plays from Tatum in 2001. The 6-foot, 184-pounder is one of four players competing for the two cornerback jobs. With less than two weeks remaining before the Sept. 1 opener against Louisville, any combination of Tatum, Jeremy Bowie, Leonard Burress and Earven Flowers could be in the starting lineup.

"If we played Louisville this Saturday, we'd start (Anthony) Wajda at free safety, Bowie at one corner and Burress at the other corner. (Quentus) Cumby would be rotating at either corner or free safety. The other corner would be Tatum, and he'd be working either side backed up by Flowers," said Smith, noting that Tatum has been slowed by a hereditary groin injury of late.

"Tatum is as good as any of them, but he's got this groin injury," Smith said. "He's had problems with it, and some days he's not as quick as they are... But the only time Tatum is not an SEC corner is when the dang groin acts up because he's a step slow then."

"Camp's been good so far, but it's been a lot tougher than what we've been used to, and the competition is stiff," Tatum said. "But bottom line: If I'm healthy, I'm a starter."

Tatum offers the most recent experience at the position. He played in all 11 games each of the last two years, starting three games as a sophomore. One of the team's hardest hitters, he finished with 37 tackles and one interception.

"He's a real hitter," Smith said. "I like that."

Bowie, a 5-10, 191-pound senior, has played in 33 games and started seven in his Wildcat career. But the Tyler, Texas, native redshirted last year after violating the school's student-athlete alcohol policy, and has not taken a snap since the 1999 Music City Bowl.

According to Smith, Bowie has bounced back well from his disciplinary action and shown the dedication it takes to be successful. His offseason workouts have placed him in a position to have a big year.

"Bowie is very physical. He's a 500 squater, 390 bencher. As far as broad jump and vertical jump, he's as good as anyone we've got," Smith said. "He has very quick feet, great speed. I guess his No. 1 asset is he's flat-out cat quick. Then you add that to the strength. When he jams people, they feel it."

The third piece of the cornerback puzzle is sophomore Leonard Burress. The 5-11, 182-pound Memphis native played in all 11 games as a true freshman, recording eight tackles. He was primarily used in a special teams coverage role, but may be ready to ascend on the UK depth chart.

"Burress has great feet. He's very, very flexible. He probably accelerates and breaks on the ball better than anyone," Smith said.

Secondary coach Rick Smith
works with redshirt freshman
Earven Flowers (32).

And then there's Flowers, a 5-10, 173-pound product of Tyler, Texas. The redshirt freshman somewhat surprisingly emerged from spring drills as one of the starters.

"Flowers had a really good spring and wound up being the starter," Smith said. "Of course, I told them before the summer that just because you're the starter coming out of spring doesn't mean you'll be the starter in the fall. It depends on what you do during the summer. Flowers had an average summer, but two other guys had a great summer, Bowie and Burress.

"But Flowers was in a really good program down in Texas, evidently, because he's just a playmaker. He might not be as fast as the other three, but he's a football player. He plays on instinct. I like him a lot."

Smith said that true freshmen Warren Wilson (5-11, 170) and Antoine Huffman (6-0, 185) have also been impressive in camp. Either one could get the call if injuries or unproductive play affect the other four corners.

"The first four guys are pretty even," Smith said. "You can pretty much shake them up and come out the same. (Claude) Sagaille had a decent summer, but not a great summer due to some shoulder problems, so he's not as strong as he needs to be. But I know he's a good player, a smart player, and he'll eventually help us. The two freshman corners, Huffman and WIlson, look pretty good so far. I'm not sure yet whether they'll be able to play or not."

The lone safety spot in the Cats' new defensive scheme has also been a highly competitive battle. Wajda, a senior, is attempting to hold off a strong challenge by junior Cumby.

"Going into the fall we thought what Cumby had to work on was pass coverage and what Wajda had to work on was filling the gaps and tackling," Smith said. "They've both worked on that the first two weeks and gotten better.

Smith instructs
Anthony Wajda (24)
and Quentus Cumby (2).

"Cumby's probably a little bit more against the run. He's about 210 (pounds) and a 360 bench-presser. Wajda's 190 and about a 290 bencher, so just size and strength, Cumby's got the edge.  Wajda's probably playing the pass better. In short yardage situations, knowing somebody's going to run, we'd probably have Cumby in there, even though Wajda's doing a lot better job at that."

Cumby has been so impressive at times that Smith is tempted to also use him at corner.

"We tried Cumby at corner because, when you look at all the stats as far as athletic ability, he's as good as anybody we have on the football team, and I didn't want to have him just as a backup. So I'm going to try that some, and I'm going to move Claude Sagaille from corner to safety to shore that up some," Smith said.

"Claude's a real intelligent young man. He's good enough to be a corner, but he's having trouble playing it right now because of all the jamming you have to do with a broken finger. I had a free safety at Baylor one time who had broken thumb and made 135 tackles and five interceptions, Michael Welch. So a guy can play safety with a broken thumb easier than corner.

"When Wajda graduates, I'll probably move Claude there full-time. That way when Cumby graduates, I'll have a guy who's been there a couple of years."

Like most of the defensive players, Tatum loves the new scheme defensive coordinator John Goodner has brought to the Cats.

"It's an aggressive scheme, which I always like, but it doesn't leave you hanging," he said. "I know I've got help, and I know our guys up front are going to get pressure on the quarterback, so that makes it a lot easier on me. I can overplay certain routes because I know there's going to be pressure or help in certain areas.

"I love playing press defense, but you can't always cover receivers one-on-one. You can't cover those Louisville guys or Florida guys one-on-one the whole time without help. That's one thing different we'll have this year."

Tatum says he's counting the days until the Cats square off with the arch-rival Cardinals at Commonwealth Stadium. He may even summon a bit of that old smack-talk magic. Or will he?

"I can't wait to play Louisville," he said. "They've got some of the quickest, best receivers you can find, and a great quarterback. That's a challenge to me. I've got a lot of respect for Dave Ragone and Deion Branch. They're two of the best players in the country at their positions. I go way back with Ragone. I played against him in high school. He's a winner who makes big plays.

"But us and Louisville, we aren't buddies or nothing. It's going to be a war. We have a bad taste from last year. We shoulda, coulda, woulda won that game, but they're the ones who did."

AllWildcats Top Stories