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Depth, experience in backfield help transition for Neloms, defense

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Martavius Neloms is transitioning to his original cornerback position for his senior season. (Bretty Marshall, UK Athletics) Martavius Neloms is transitioning to his original cornerback position for his senior season. (Bretty Marshall, UK Athletics)
One of the toughest pieces of news the Kentucky football team received before fall camp was that cornerback Marcus Caffey would not be eligible for the 2012 season. It wasn't anything that head coach Joker Phillips wanted to dwell on, preferring to focus the guys who would be playing for him this season. 

And with good reason.

While they will be playing a man down in the secondary, it's the unit's depth that made Phillips and his staff comfortable with a decision to reassign safety Martavius Neloms to cornerback. It was a move that may have galvanized an already tight-knit defensive unit.

The change brought initial disappointment to Neloms. After all, he was a cornerback earlier in his career before shifting over to safety. But his team-first mentality helped him to eventually accept the decision with open arms. 

"I was a little sad because I had gotten used to playing safety," said Neloms. "My heart was at safety. But I'm a big team guy, so whatever the team needs; I'm willing to do it. If they want me to play defensive tackle, I'm going to go out there and do it."

Neloms grew into the role last seasons as the "quarterback" of the defense. He was in charge of getting his teammates in the right place, calling signals and lining everyone up. Now his role changes to corner where he finds himself on an island, forced to use his natural ability to help stop opposing offensive threats. 

But a team can never have enough leaders. Though the secondary is deep and has experience, its core is still relatively young. Neloms knows that while his position on the field has changed, his role as a leader is just expanding.

"I feel like I still have to be a leader because we have a lot of young corners, so I have still have to a leader for them," said Neloms, who will wear the No. 1 jersey this season. "I still have to know what I'm doing at corner as well as safety because with the safeties they have back there, they have great players, but I still know the safety role, so I can help them out too."

Had Neloms never played the position previously, the staff may have opted to go in a different direction when it came to replacing Caffey. But even before the news broke, plans were in place to start Neloms' transition in the event of an injury to either of the starting cornerbacks. For first-year defensive backs coach Mike Cassity, the position switch is really a non-issue.

"We said if, number one, Caffey didn't develop into (the cornerback position), Martavius would have been the next guy to move there," said Cassity. "But if Cartier (Rice) and Caffey, playing well, would have got injured, we would have moved him. That's been in the plans. Everyone's making a lot more out of it than they should. DBs are DBs."

Neloms is just one piece of the defensive backs unit that has a solid mix of experience and youth. Mikie Benton, a fifth-year senior and former walk-on who has fought his way to the top of the depth chart, provides a veteran presence with Neloms in the backfield. 

Benton feels his greatest strength as a leader is assisting the younger defensive backs in understanding the reality of the position. Sometimes you get beat. Other times you do the beating. Regardless, it's important to be focused on the next play.

"Basically the whole process of being overwhelmed," said Benton of what he helps his teammates with. "The whole playbook, just trying to tell guys to take it piece by piece. Try not to over think things. Just try to break it down in the smallest ways in the easiest form. Just the situations, if you're out here on the field, for example, you make a bad play, just not to get down on yourself. Out here, as a (defensive back), you have to have short term memory."

Benton's been at Kentucky for some of the great times in program history. He now, after last season, has seen the lows. But he and his fellow seniors realize that there time as Wildcats is diminishing by the minute, so it's up to them to get this program back on the right track.

"Honestly, it just means a lot," said Benton of his senior year. "With some of the guys that have been here five years with me, we kind of just sit back and we're like, 'Wow, five years has just come and pass. This is our last year.' Honestly, we just feel like we've got to buy in. We definitely want to go out our senior year on a good note, definitely getting back to a bowl game. That's what are mind is set on. We've got to work hard and pull the young guys with us. This season means a lot to me."

A lot of the early excitement out of camp has come from the defensive front. The linemen seem to be the bright spot, not only on the defense, but the entire team. It could be the team's greatest strength once the calendar hits Sept. 2. 

But the defensive backs aren't jealous of the attention. As long as the defense is getting attention, that is a positive in the eyes of sophomore Ashely Lowery, who is currently projected as the starter at the safety spot vacated by Neloms. 

"I think it's good the defensive line's getting a lot of attention," said Lowery. "To the fans, it will be a surprise what we can do on the back end. But to us, we're working hard every day, and we know what we'll be like once we step on the field September 2."

The defense has united, starting way back during summer workouts and now heading into fall camp. They've rallied past adversity and have come together early in camp. It has Lowery excited about the possibilities of his defense, his teammates, and a group that he now calls his brothers.

"The commitment, the enthusiasm," said Lowery. "I was in the weight room with the defensive players when we worked out in the summer and we all come out and run. We would run together. If it was the defensive line running, we were all pulling for them. If it were the linebackers, defensive backs, everyone was pulling for each other. We weren't trying to leave anyone behind. No man left behind. We're a band of brothers."

It's no secret bond either. These guys are outwardly supportive of each other on and off the field, and their coaches are very much aware. 

With moving parts, a diverse group and a little bit of youth, the defensive backs could be the biggest surprise of the upcoming season. A dedicated, close, hard working group that has some size and ability, they are essentially a coach's dream. It has all the makings of core group that could be a strength of the defense for years to come.

"Number one, they work hard in practice," Cassity said. "They're a close-knit group. They're an enthusiastic group. Give me guys that work hard, that are enthusiastic, and play together, then you've got a good nucleus."

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