Last Saturday's 26-16 win over Florida was liberating for junior cornerback Carrington Valentine.
He recorded five tackles and a career-high three pass breakups against the Gators in what was a much-needed performance in the secondary. Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson targeted the CB from the jump, but Valentine didn't waver.
"I knew I was gonna have to win some one-on-ones, so that's what I like to do, I like to be out on the island, so I just knew I had to be myself," Valentine said.
One of those pass breakups was a crucial, game-sealing play in the fourth quarter, which is just the kind of play that the junior expected to have to make all night.
"Film prep," he said. "When they went, what ended up being four-by-one and I was the only one on the backside, in my mind I was like, I mean I just had to have the mindset to just be better than him and be dominant."
Kentucky's secondary was called into question at times last season, as well as in the lead-up to the 2022 campaign. Valentine and his fellow cornerbacks were well aware of then noise surrounding their group, and have seemingly taken the next step through two weeks of the season.
It also helps when you bring in a player the caliber of Keidron Smith, who brings in years of SEC experience that over time spreads throughout the team. Valentine knows that when Smith is on the other side of the field, opposing QB's are going o have a tough choice to make, one that likely won't end well either way.
"Just more opportunity to make plays at the ball at that point, you know. I mean, you just gotta pick your poison. I mean, you got (Smith) on either side and got me so it's whatever you want to do at that point," Valentine said. "You know, just know having experience on both sides, you have to pick one. I am younger than him, so might as well try me, I guess. But I just had to show up and just make plays."
That kind of leadership that Smith brings has also transitioned over to Valentine, who has become a leader in his own right over the course of his tenure in Lexington. When free safety Jalen Geiger went down in the second quarter against Florida and was carted off the field, Valentine went and found Jordan Lovett, who was entering the game as Gieger's replacement.
Valentine kept the redshirt freshman at ease, letting him know that he and the rest of the defense had his back regardless if things were going in his favor or not:
"I found (Lovett) and I basically told him, 'You're here, this is your moment. I'm gonna be there for you, you know, you prepared for this," Valentine said. "So you know, I said 'I'm gonna help you, but at the end of the day, like, you're in the fire now.' But I trust him. Like I trust him with everything. I mean, I knew what it was gonna be. I know he was nervous, he had a little bit of the jitters but I just looked at him and was like, 'You're good, like you wouldn't be here in this position if we didn't trust you."
Lovett prevailed in Gainesville just the same as Valentine. The bread and butter of Kentucky football has always been its defense since the arrival of Mark Stoops, and the pair of defensive backs proved just that in the second half against Florida, holding the Gators scoreless for the last 30 minutes.
Coming off of such a high, it's easy to lull into the following week, especially when an FCS opponent like Youngstown State is set to head to Lexington. Fortunately for UK, that Florida win is far in the past, and the Wildcats are fully focused on the next task at hand.
"Treat Youngstown how we treat Florida at this point," Valentine said. "They have good players as well. We're going to play a good team. So just treat them like we treat Florida or treat them how we treat anybody else going forward. That's how you prepare for them."
Preparation has already paid off for Kentucky twice this season, and it'll look to do it again on noon this Saturday at Kroger Field.
Want the latest on national football and basketball recruiting, including Cats targets? Head over to SI All-American for the latest news, blogs, and updates about the nation's best prospects.