Martavius Neloms has bounced around between cornerback and safety seemingly his entire career at Kentucky.
He jokes that even he has a hard time keeping track of what position he’s playing. For the record, he’s back at cornerback entering his senior season, having moved there earlier this preseason when it was learned that promising redshirt freshman cornerback Marcus Caffey was academically ineligible.
“I wasn’t sure they were going to come to me. We have a lot of talented young guys,” said Neloms, who had moved to safety last season after playing 21 games at cornerback during the 2009 and 2010 seasons.
“But when they did come, I knew it was what was best for the team. Just them having the faith in me that I could make the move back to corner was big for my confidence.
“Besides, if you have the right kind of pride, you feel like you can play any position on the field.”
Neloms’ pride runs much deeper than where he’ll line up this fall. He wants to leave the Kentucky program the way he found it, which was an annual participant in bowl games.
The Wildcats had played in the postseason for five straight years until that streak was broken a year ago.
“A lot of people have us projected at the very bottom,” Neloms said. “A lot of people are sleeping on us, but we’re preparing every day to come out and play our best ball on Saturdays and prove everybody wrong.”
There’s a bit of irony in the fact Neloms is switching jersey numbers this season. He’s going from No. 15 to No. 1, but he’s clearly looking out for a lot more than just No. 1.
Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said Neloms’ leadership skills have improved dramatically, which has shown up in his play on the field.
“He’s always been a good player,” Phillips said. “We think he can be a great player now that he’s putting it all together.”
The Wildcats will need Neloms to be a rock in a secondary that isn’t exactly brimming with experience. Senior Cartier Rice is the other starting cornerback, but has just one career start entering the season. Behind Neloms and Rice are true freshmen Cody Quinn and Fred Tiller.
And taking Neloms’ place at safety is sophomore Ashely Lowery, who played last season as a true freshman.
“We have a lot of young corners coming in, so I not only have to be ready for myself, but I have to be ready to show them the way,” Neloms said. “It’s not just you back there. You have to work together, and we all have to be ready.”
Even though Neloms is one of the veterans on Kentucky’s defense, he’s anything but a veteran when it comes to football. He didn’t start playing the sport until he was a junior at Fairley High in Memphis.
That makes his transition from cornerback to safety and now back to cornerback all the more impressive. He tied for third on the team last season with 71 tackles despite missing the last two games with a high ankle sprain.
His physical style is tailor-made for playing safety, but he’s determined to be just as physical at cornerback.
“I’m still going to be physical and do everything I can to take my man out of the play,” Neloms said.
The Wildcats were much more aggressive on defense across the board last season under first-year coordinator Rick Minter. They went from forcing 16 turnovers in 2010 to 25 in 2011, which was fifth in the SEC.
Despite losing top tacklers Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy, Neloms thinks the Wildcats will be even more instinctive in Minter’s system the second time around.
“We have a lot of young guys, but they play fast, and because some of these guys have been around now for a year in this defense, I think we’ll play even faster,” Neloms said. “There’s still a lot of room to grow in this defense, and I think we’ll be even better this year than we were last year.”