SEC: Cartier Rice

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 continue to rank all the positions in the SEC and turn our attention to groups of defensive backs the conference has to offer.

Past rankings:
On to the league's secondaries:

[+] EnlargeTyrann Mathieu
Dale Zanine/US PresswireTyrann Mathieu is a force to be reckoned with in the LSU secondary.
1. LSU: The Tigers bring back a load of talent here. Tyrann Mathieu and his Honey Badger persona return, but he might not be LSU's best pure corner. While Mathieu has a true knack for finding the ball, no matter where he is, junior Tharold Simon, who replaces Thorpe Award winner Morris Claiborne, might have the best cover ability on the team. Junior safety Eric Reid takes the back end of the field away and will challenge to be one of the nation's top safeties this fall. The coaches are still waiting for safety Craig Loston to break out, and his solid spring was an encouragement. Keep an eye on safety Micah Eugene, who turned heads this spring.

2. Georgia: The Bulldogs have some depth concerns and some players will face early-season suspensions, but the Bulldogs are loaded at the top. Bacarri Rambo is one of the nation's best safeties and he has a very solid partner in Shawn Williams, who led the Dawgs in tackles last year. Seniors Sanders Commings and Branden Smith are back, but will likely sit out the start of the year because of suspension. That leaves Malcolm Mitchell, who moved from receiver, to fill in and he's no stranger to defense. The coaches are also excited about youngster Damian Swann, who will play early.

3. Alabama: With three starters gone, this group is drawing a lot of comparisons to the 2010 unit that struggled at times. However, this batch of DBs insists it'll be more prepared this fall and shakes off the comparisons. Veteran Robert Lester is back at safety and is an All-SEC-type player. Junior cornerback Dee Milliner has 16 career starts under his belt and is an underrated talent, and the coaches are expecting to get a lot out of junior college transfers Travell Dixon and Deion Belue. Keep an eye on safety HaHa Clinton-Dix, who has the talent to be a star in this league.

4. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs own one of the league's best corner duos in seniors Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield. Banks might hold the title as the league's best returning cover corner. Darius Slay is also another corner to watch, as he has some legit playmaking ability. Junior safety Nickoe Whitley is back as well and he would have had better numbers if not for a ruptured Achilles tendon that cut his 2011 season short. He grabbed four interceptions in nine games and should be 100 percent this fall.

5. Florida: This group was pretty young last year, but now has some quality experience under its belt. Safety Matt Elam is the best of the bunch and should challenge to be the league's top safety this year. Sophomore Marcus Roberson had a solid freshman season and has the makings to be a top cover corner in this league. The other corner spot is up for grabs, but keep an eye on sophomore Loucheiz Purifoy, who the staff is very excited about. Josh Evans had a good spring at free safety, but he'll have his hands full fighting off sophomore De'Ante Saunders, who started nine games last year.

6. Missouri: The star of this group is junior corner E.J. Gaines, who recorded only two interceptions, but he broke up 16 passes in 2011 and is bonafide All-SEC candidate. Across from Gaines is senior Kip Edwards, who returns for his second year as a starter and has 37 games to his credit. Edwards turned into a solid cover man toward the end of last season. Seven players return with starting experience, including safeties Kenronte Walker (four starts), who was named the team's most improved safety this spring, and Braylon Webb (four), who had a strong freshman year.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks are down three starters, but they aren't without talent. Senior safety D.J. Swearinger, the lone returning starter, is one of the league's top safeties and is solid against the pass and the run. Vet Akeem Auguste returns after missing all of last year with a foot injury, and he's back at corner after moving to safety in 2010. The questions begin with sophomores Victor Hampton (corner) and Brison Williams (safety). Hampton has the talent to succeed, but has some maturing to do. Williams struggled in his only start last year, but the staff really likes his upside.

8. Vanderbilt: Casey Hayward and Sean Richardson are gone, but the Commodores still possess some pretty good talent in the secondary, starting with corner Trey Wilson, who had a solid 2011 in Hayward's shadow. The coaches like what they've seen from junior corner Andre Hal, and safety Kenny Ladler could be a real player at free safety. Expect Eric Samuels and Javon Marshall, who have both see plenty of field time in their careers, to get into the safety rotation this fall.

9. Auburn: The Tigers' secondary took some lumps last year, but certainly has experience back there. Three veteran starters are back with 33 combined starts from a year ago. Fifth-year senior cornerback T'Sharvan Bell didn't go through spring while he recovered from knee surgery, but has the talent to be a top corner in this league. Juniors Chris Davis (corner) and Demetruce McNeal are both back and sophomore Jermaine Whitehead, who had a solid freshman campaign, will get time at safety.

10. Tennessee: Tennessee gave up 7 yards per attempt last year, but things could turnaround this fall. Tennessee has a lot of game experience at corner, including senior Prentiss Waggner, who is the leader of the group. Sophomore Brian Randolph had a solid freshman campaign and junior Brent Brewer is returning to the other safety spot after suffering an ACL injury in late October. Izauea Lanier was ruled ineligible this summer, meaning Marsalis Teague and Eric Gordon will compete with Justin Coleman for a corner spot.

11. Arkansas: Sophomore Tevin Mitchel had a solid first year in Fayetteville and is on course to have a true breakout year this fall. Junior Eric Bennett is holding down one of the safety sports and started 13 games in 2011 after moving from cornerback last spring. The staff is still waiting on senior corner Darius Winston to live up to the hype that followed him from high school. Freshmen Kelvin Fisher Jr. and Davyon McKinney will get their chances to play this fall and help with depth.

12. Ole Miss: The Rebels should be better against the pass this year and things start with veteran safety Charles Sawyer, who has All-SEC quality and should have had at least three more than the four interceptions he recorded last year. Former JUCO transfer corner Wesley Pendleton had an impressive year last season, but looked even better this spring. Nickolas Brassell is gone, but the coaches hope to get more out of former freshman standout Senquez Golson, and junior Brishen Mathews returns from back injury to take the hybrid Husky position.

13. Kentucky: The Wildcats must replace two starting corners, but the coaches feel good about senior Cartier Rice and redshirt freshman Marcus Caffey. Caffey, who moved from running back, might have the most upside and was one of Kentucky's top players this spring. Senior starting safeties Martavius Neloms and Mikie Benton are back. Neloms had a solid spring and racked up 71 tackles last year. Behind them, the Wildcats are full of unproven youngsters.

14. Texas A&M: This is where the Aggies could really struggle. Texas A&M ranked 109th nationally in pass defense last year and could start three sophomores in its secondary this fall. Senior safety Steven Campbell can be a real playmaker for this group, but he's struggled to stay healthy during his career. Senior Dustin Harris has shown flashes on defense, but left spring as a backup to sophomore Deshazor Everett. Sophomore Floyd Raven, who was impressive this spring, has the edge over JUCO transfer Tremaine Jacobs at the other corner spot. The coaches are hoping this is a more athletic group in 2012.