They should be. The 2014 defense returns 12-game starter Kendrick Market on the first squad, and while everyone will miss end-of-2013 season hero Nickoe Whitley there are Dogs who took his place when injured. And that doesn't even account for the veteran who missed all but six snaps of last year; for now Jay Hughes is assisting his father as a ‘coach' while recovering from a torn muscle. The younger Hughes will be full-speed by August and definitely wants his starting job back.
Meaning the fun will resume in preseason. For now, Hughes is enjoying the progress of this available group.
How would you evaluate this spring for the safeties as a whole? "Kendrick Market has a lot of experience from last year. Moving Justin Cox gave us more depth, and he's a fine athlete he's able to come in and step up and help us and make plays with the speed. Of course Kivon Coman and Deontay Evans both have a lot of experience from last year, they both played really for us in a lot of key games. They're a year older and have a lot more experience now, they're both sophomores. And getting Jay Hughes back later on is just going to really put a lot of I guess you would say confidence in our group, that all of them can play and we can be pretty deep at the position." Do you concern yourself at this point with who is ‘strong' and ‘free' safety or just rotate everyone everywhere? "Basically we want it to be flexible. Now, you know the kids that are a little younger and the kids we've just moved there, naturally you put them in one or the other so that they can learn what to do, how to do it. And be fundamentally sound."
"The older guys like a Kendrick that has played a little, Jay, and Deontay probably played a little more than others, they can probably be swing guys a lot easier because they have more experience."
Is Cox more comfortable at safety now than last year at cornerback? "It's really good for him. He's a tremendous athlete and coming in last year we needed the depth at corner. And he was a junior college kid, so it worked out, we were able to let him play corner all year. It was proven we really needed him down the stretch at corner. Once we got into bowl prep we made the move and it has kind of spilled over to the spring. Now we think we have a good group and he brings something to the table, some speed and athletic ability."
What suits a player for free or strong the way you do it, compared to our traditional concepts? "It's hard because you have spread teams now that spread the field. Used to be a strong safety was more of a box player, on teams that lined up in 21 personnel with two backs and a tight end and two receivers. They were going to run the football so you had this prototype strong safety which was more like a linebacker that forced the run real fast. A free safety was mostly a middle of the field guy, more of a roamer that could cover ground, smart guy that got everybody lined up."
"Now, you're safeties are interchangeable. Because if you play a spread team the free safety has to go down and cover and run and do things, and that's not prototypical. A strong safety has to go back and roam in the middle of the field; the next play they may give you a formation where it's just the opposite. So they've got to be interchangeable parts at all times."
A veteran group of linebackers in front of them seems to have accelerated the safeties this spring? "Yeah, any time you have—I think Coach Collins says six, seven guys—and we've got Taveze Calhoun, Jamerson Love, we've got Will Redmond, Tolando Cleveland. Then Market, Cox, Jay, Kivon, Deontay; all have played in the SEC."
"So they'll go out there with a lot of confidence, and they've played with a lot of confidence. Then they play with each other and know each other's moves, they talk and communicate, and it makes a big difference. They're not starting over from scratch."
This week we're seeing some more nickel formations, like with Will Redmond. Who else can be looked at for that role? "You know, with the corners that we have that can play and the safeties that can play…and you think about it, Jay used to be a corner, Cox used to be a corner. That is just a part of the development of the program. You start out in one position and it's like an end that comes in at a certain weight and eats himself into a defensive tackle. And a linebacker eats himself into a defensive end, or a safety eats himself to a linebacker and a corner eats himself to a safety…that's when your program is really going the right direction."
The recruiting of the last three, four years has produced a lot of depth, shown that you can move a Quadry Antoine or Dee Arrington to linebacker. "That's right. Exactly. And that is part of the development of a program. When you get that going, then you're development kids that can play in crucial situations for you."