NCF Nation: Martavius Neloms

Neloms looking out for more than No. 1

August, 21, 2012
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.

[+] EnlargeMartavius Neloms
Mark Humphrey/AP PhotoKentucky's Martavius Neloms, left, stops Vanderbilt running back Zac Stacy on Nov. 12, 2011.
“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.”
We head into high-flyer mode as we discuss defensive backs today. They are athletic as ever this season, and some teams return a bevy of secondary talent in 2011.

Here’s how the teams look:

[+] EnlargeMark Barron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesMark Barron decided to return to Alabama instead of making himself eligible for the NFL draft.
1. Alabama: This was an area of the team that was a problem and it wasn’t so much the yardage given up but the lack of consistency, especially in big games (see the Auburn game). This year, the Tide should have one of the best defensive backfields in the country. Safety Mark Barron could have entered the NFL draft, but stayed. And while he was in a non-contact jersey this spring, he’ll be one of the top safeties around this fall. Robert Lester is another solid safety who is also making everyone’s short list of top safeties for next year’s draft. At corner, everyone knows Dre Kirkpatrick, but DeQuan Menzie could be Alabama’s best weapon in the secondary. Dee Milliner is still in the mix at corner and there is a lot of good young talent as well.

2. LSU: No Patrick Peterson? No problem. The Tigers are once again loaded in their secondary with corners Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu. Both are All-SEC material and Claiborne led the Tigers with five interceptions last season. Mathieu found a way to get to the ball often last season and both should make it tough for any quarterback to throw on LSU this fall. Sophomore Tharold Simon made strong improvements at corner this spring as well. Safety Brandon Taylor is another top player at his position and he should be fine after suffering a foot injury at the end of last season. Youngsters Eric Reid and Craig Loston look like stars in the making at safety.

3. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return five players who started at some point in 2010. Johnthan Banks, Corey Broomfield and Nickoe Whitley each recorded three interceptions and had 50-plus tackles last year. Broomfield should be the Bulldogs' top option at corner, while Banks can play both corner and safety. Charles Mitchell returns at safety and was third on the team with 93 tackles last season. All of Mississippi State’s defensive backs not only have a knack for making big plays down field but they can each play efficiently in the box.

4. Arkansas: This group is a little inexperienced, but there is a lot of talent to go around. Things start with safety Tramain Thomas. Thomas was fourth on the team in tackles last season and grabbed four interceptions. Thomas looked even better this spring, making play after play. Fellow senior Elton Ford should get time at safety, and converted corner Eric Bennett should get reps as well. Hybrid linebacker Jerico Nelson enhances the group when he drops back with the safeties and Isaac Madison returns at one of the corner spots and should team up with Darius Winston. The two have 27 career starts under their belts.

5. South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ secondary has to improve after underachieving a year ago, and South Carolina has the weapons to do it. Corner Stephon Gilmore wasn’t at his best last year, but has tremendous cover ability and speed to be tops at his position. Akeem Auguste moved from safety back to his more natural position at corner and should give the Gamecocks one of the top corner tandems in the SEC. DeVonte Holloman moved to the Spur linebacker spot, so there are still questions at safety, but D.J. Swearinger really impressed this spring and some think he’s the most gifted defensive back in Columbia. Replacing Holloman’s spot is going to be tough, and the coaches have yet to find someone to solidify that position.

6. Vanderbilt: This is the strongest part of Vanderbilt’s team. The Commodores return a heap of talent, starting with senior corner Casey Hayward, who was a second-team All-SEC pick a year ago. Hayward led the SEC with 11 pass breakups and had six interceptions. Safety Sean Richardson led the team with 98 tackles and would start on a lot of teams in the SEC. The other safety spot is occupied by Kenny Ladler, who was one of the top safeties in the league last season, even as a freshman. Junior Trey Wilson had a great spring and could move past last year’s starter Eddie Foster on the depth chart.

7. Georgia: Like most positions at Georgia, there’s no shortage of talent. However, there are still questions. Senior Brandon Boykin is solid at one of the corner spots with his natural corner instincts, great speed and is the defensive leader. Sanders Commings is talented and has the best size, but he’ll have to battle Branden Smith at the other corner spot. Smith is a total athlete, but he has to improve his coverage skills. Bacarri Rambo is solid at safety, but he needs to return to the form he had as a freshman. Finding someone to line up next to him is important. With Alec Ogletree moving to linebacker, there is a hole at safety and one of Georgia’s newcomers might have to step in this fall.

8. Florida: The Gators would have been higher on this list had it not been for the dismissal of All-SEC corner Janoris Jenkins. There’s a gaping hole at corner, and the hope is that junior Jeremy Brown can help fill it. He finally played after a severe back injury kept him out for two years, and while he struggled at times, Florida’s coaches were very impressed with his play this spring. Sophomore Cody Riggs was a pleasant surprise at corner last season and is battling unproven senior Moses Jenkins. There is nothing but youth and inexperience behind them. At safety, Matt Elam had a good spring at strong safety, while free safety wasn’t totally locked down by Josh Evans. The good news is that Florida signed six defensive backs this year.

9. Tennessee: This group could be decent, but there are so many questions. We aren’t sure if star Janzen Jackson will return after leaving school this spring. Prentiss Waggner moved from safety to corner last season, where he was an All-SEC performer, and then back to safety when Jackson left. But he might be back at corner this fall. If Waggner is a corner and there’s no Jackson, there’s an enormous hole at safety. If he stays at safety, then there’s one at corner. Fortunately, Brent Brewer, a former minor league baseball player, is a solid safety, and corner Marsalis Teague returns after converting from receiver last season. Incoming junior college transfer Byron Moore should compete immediately for time at corner.

10. Kentucky: There is a lot of experience with four senior starters returning, but the unit has to show that it can be consistent in big games. Safety/linebacker hybrid Winston Guy leads the group with his speed, strength and athleticism, and will move down into the box as the nickel linebacker. Seniors Randall Burden and Anthony Mosley are back at corner after combing for 11 pass breakups and two interceptions. Junior Martavius Neloms began the spring as the starter at corner, but could see more time at safety this fall. Mychal Bailey will line up at safety and was second behind Guy with two interceptions last season. Inexperience behind this group is still a problem.

11. Auburn: Things started off poorly when senior safety Michael McNeil was one of the four players arrested for robbery and later dismissed this spring. McNeil, who started seven games last season, was supposed to be one of the stars of the Tigers’ defense this fall. Now he’s gone and former corner Neiko Thorpe is moving over to safety. The move actually benefits the hit-first defensive back. T’Sharvan Bell is at corner and has the speed and tight cover skills to be one of the best at his position. After that, it’s a free-for-all. Incoming freshman Erique Florence should get an opportunity to come in and play immediately at safety.

12. Ole Miss: This group had to hear about how it was the goat of last season’s 4-8 campaign after allowing 246 passing yards a game. It was a motivational tool this spring, but there’s a lot of work to do. New defensive backs coach Keith Burns was pleased with the spring progress and really liked how JUCO transfer Wesley Pendleton played at corner. He’s competing to take one of those spots from either Marcus Temple, who missed spring with injury, or Charles Sawyer, who had to be pushed at times this spring. The reliable Damien Jackson is back at safety and could line up next to Brishen Mathews, who got good playing time last season, but is still unproven. JUCO transfer Ivan Nicholas and freshman Cliff Coleman will compete for time at safety and corner, respectively.
When Rick Minter looks at film of Kentucky’s 2010 defense, he can easily point out the weaknesses.

He says it's not the talent, but the drive.

[+] EnlargeDanny Trevathan
Mark Zerof/US PresswireNew Kentucky coordinator Rick Minter is confident he can maximize the talents of star linebacker Danny Trevathan, right.
Hesitance suffocated the Wildcats at times, leading to blown assignments and a lack of toughness.

Minter, the Wildcats’ new co-defensive coordinator, is looking to toughen up this group.

“We’re going to be an aggressive, move-around defense,” Minter said. “We’re going to attack people. We’re not going to sit back and wait and we’re going to be a combination of zone coverages and zone pressures and man defenses.”

Minter, who joined Kentucky two weeks before January’s BBVA Compass Bowl, is also making things a bit more interesting by experimenting with a three-man front and operating out of a 4-2-5 alignment, while still having a 4-3 base.

He’s moving guys around, trying to get more speed on the field, especially closer to the line of scrimmage.

There is different terminology for players to decipher, a new playbook study and some new, more innovative formations to memorize.

It’s a lot to throw on his new unit, but more than halfway through spring practice, Minter said he’s pleased with how his guys have taken to all this change.

“I’m extremely happy with how hard they’re trying to do their best,” said Minter, who was the head coach at Cincinnati from 1994-2003 and was the linebackers coach at Indiana State last season.

“I couldn’t be happier with what they’re doing.”

But in January, that wasn’t the case.

With only a small window of time to work with his new players, Minter mostly worked on technique, staying away from implementing his new schemes. The preparation, Minter says, was good, but the result wasn’t as the Wildcats fell 27-10 to Pittsburgh, giving up 261 rushing yards in the process.

“We tried to make it through December, tried to prove ourselves, “Minter said. “Yet, we went out and basically did not get the job done in the bowl game.”

After seeing his defense gutted on the ground against the Panthers, Minter has put special emphasis on stopping the run. Kentucky allowed 177.1 yards rushing yards a game lat season, good enough for 11th in the SEC.

Funky formations and a more creative blitz package will be a main force against the rush, Minter said, but the key cog is 6-foot-1, 230-pound senior weakside linebacker Danny Trevathan, who was first in the SEC and ninth nationally with 144 total tackles in 2010.

“Danny Trevathan was an outstanding football player long before I got here,” Minter said. “What we want to try and do is take his game to another level.

“You can see quickly when you coach him out there on a daily basis and you’re around this kid how he did indeed lead this league in a whole lot of areas in tackling.”

It hasn’t been an easy adjustment, but Minter is starting to see guys adapt to the new system. Guys like middle linebacker Ronnie Sneed, linebacker/safety Winston Guy, cornerbacks Martavius Neloms, Randall Burden and Anthony Moseley, and defensive tackle Luke McDermott have all caught on nicely, Minter said.

Junior quarterback Morgan Newton has seen more than just a handful of guys catching on. He said working against Kentucky‘s new schemes has been both confusing and frustrating at times and he’s convinced the defense will surprise people this fall.

“The defense is as exciting as anyone out here. They’re flying around, making plays," Newton said. “Coach Minter and the guys are going to have them making plays (this fall).”

That sort of praise is nice, Minter said, but there’s still work to be done.

The defensive performance in the first spring scrimmage drew high praise from head coach Joker Phillips, but it was also marred with inconsistency.

It’s fixable, but it’s out of Minter’s hands. The next step in the maturation of this defense, Minter said, is for players to be more reliable and more devoted to applying what they learn from mistakes.

“We’re not anywhere [near] where we need to be in the sense of consistency,” he said. “They gotta understand they gotta bring their lunch bucket every day to play.”