Music City Bowl game day: Iowa vs. Kentucky
Click below for more of the Herald-Leader’s and Kentucky.com’s coverage of Saturday’s Kentucky-Iowa football game in the Music City Bowl at Nashville, Tenn.
Kentucky football’s 2022 season is complete following its 21-0 loss to Iowa in the Music City Bowl.
Now a pivotal offseason, in which Mark Stoops and company will be tasked with bouncing back from a disappointing year that saw the Wildcats fall well short of preseason goals of contending for an SEC East, has begun. The process of building Kentucky’s 2023 roster is well underway, but there is work to do.
Here is a position-by-position look at where things stand for UK heading into the offseason. The primary starter at each position is bolded. Keep in mind, even if a player has eligibility remaining, it does not necessarily mean he will return to Kentucky next season as some players have decisions to make about the NFL Draft, transferring or using pandemic eligibility years.
Leaving: Will Levis.
Eligibility remaining: Deuce Hogan, Kaiya Sheron, Destin Wade.
Newcomers: Devin Leary.
Kentucky got an early start on the quest to replace Levis, who is expected to be selected in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft, when the star quarterback opted out of the Music City Bowl to begin preparing for the draft and continue the process of recovering from multiple injuries suffered during the regular season. While Wade played all but the final series of the Music City Bowl, it is Leary who will start the 2023 opener if healthy.
One of five finalists for the 2021 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, which goes to college football’s best quarterback, Leary will arrive in January as a transfer from N.C. State. His 2022 season ended after just six games due to a torn pectoral muscle, but if Leary can return to the form that saw him throw 35 touchdowns and five interceptions in 2021, Kentucky’s offense could take a major step forward. Stoops recently said Leary is expected to be cleared to participate in spring practice.
Leaving: Mike Drennen, Chris Rodriguez, Kavosiey Smoke.
Eligibility remaining: Dee Beckwith, Ramon Jefferson*, JuTahn McClain, La’Vell Wright (*-Jefferson will reportedly seek a waiver from the NCAA for an extra year of eligibility after suffering a season-ending injury on the first drive of the 2022 season).
Newcomers: Ray Davis.
Rodriguez ended his UK career ranked third on the program’s career rushing yards list before opting out of the bowl game. While McClain impressed as Rodriguez’s primary backup down the stretch, durability has been an issue throughout his career. Kentucky added Davis, who rushed for 1,042 yards for Vanderbilt this season, in the transfer portal. McClain and Davis should form a potent one-two punch, but more depth is needed.
As the biggest running back in the room, Wright could serve a valuable role as a power runner. Jefferson is the wild card if the NCAA grants his request for an extra year of eligibility. It is unclear if Beckwith will stick at running back after also spending time at wide receiver and tight end. Stoops and company still hope to add four-star high school running back Jamarion Wilcox to the 2023 recruiting class.
Leaving: Tae Tae Crumes, DeMarcus Harris, Chris Lewis, Rahsaan Lewis, Chauncey Magwood.
Eligibility remaining: Jordan Anthony, Barion Brown, Dekel Crowdus, Dane Key, Tayvion Robinson, Brandon White.
Newcomers: Ardell Banks, Anthony Brown, Shamar Porter.
There is serious returning star power at this position with Brown and Key, who broke the UK records for receiving yards and receiving touchdowns by a freshman respectively, leading the way. Robinson must decide whether to use the extra year of eligibility granted all players in 2020 to return to Kentucky. Even with Brown and Key back, Kentucky could use Robinson’s veteran presence in a room that will be very young.
The transfers of five receivers stripped the group of its most experienced depth pieces. Now, Kentucky will hope Crowdus, Anthony and White emerge as productive members of the rotation. As three of the fastest players on the team, there is hope for big plays in the group. The trio of high school signees has a chance for early snaps, too.
Leaving: Brenden Bates, Keaton Upshaw.
Eligibility remaining: Izayah Cummings, Jordan Dingle, Justice Dingle, Josh Kattus.
Newcomers: Khamari Anderson, Jakob Dixon, Tanner Lemaster.
This was supposed to be one of the deepest positions on Kentucky’s roster entering the 2022 season, but the two youngest scholarship players in the room emerged as the clear No. 1 and No. 2 options by November. Now, Jordan Dingle and Kattus look like budding stars with Cummings having a chance to reestablish himself in the rotation following the departures of Bates and Upshaw. Justice Dingle, primarily a fullback, must decide whether to use his pandemic season of eligibility to return.
There is not an immediate need for the three freshmen signees to contribute, but Kattus proved this season UK coaches are willing to play a freshman who proves worthy of snaps regardless of how many experienced veterans are in front of him to start the season. Anderson, Kentucky’s latest four-star signee from Cass Tech High School in Detroit, looks like the safest bet to play as a freshman.
Leaving: Kiyaunta Goodwin, Tashawn Manning, John Young.
Eligibility remaining: Grant Bingham, Deondre Buford, Jager Burton, Eli Cox, Jeremy Flax, Nik Hall, Kenneth Horsey, Josh Jones, Paul Rodriguez, Quintin Wilson, David Wohlabaugh.
Newcomers: Tanner Bowles, Marques Cox, Koby Keenum, Austin Ramsey, Malachi Wood.
No position took more heat for Kentucky this season than the offensive line as the Wildcats entered the Music City Bowl ranked 120th of 131 teams in sacks allowed. Stoops and company will hope a relatively inexperienced group gained valuable experience through the 2022 struggles four of five starters could return if Horsey uses his pandemic season of eligibility as expected.
Still, help is needed, and Kentucky started the rebuilding process by signing Bowles and Cox out of the transfer portal. Cox is expected to take over the starting left tackle spot after transferring from Northern Illinois, allowing Horsey to move back to his natural guard position if he returns. Bowles will compete for snaps at guard. The position’s immediate outlook would be improved if someone from the group of Bingham, Hall, Jones and Rodriguez proves worthy of stepping into the rotation for the first time.
Eligibility remaining: Sam Anaele, Jamarius Dinkins, Tomiwa Durojaiye, Josaih Hayes, Darrion Henry-Young, Octavious Oxendine, Justin Rogers, Tre’vonn Rybka, Kahlil Saunders, Deone Walker.
Newcomers: Tavion Gadson, Tommy Ziesmer.
Each of Kentucky’s scholarship defensive linemen could return for next season, but it would not be a surprise to see this position thinned some by outgoing transfers looking for more snaps elsewhere. Rogers, who blossomed as Kentucky’s starting nose guard this season, is also considered an early entry candidate for the 2023 NFL Draft.
If Rogers returns, he and Walker, a freshman All-American, form an impressive duo to build around. Rybka and Oxendine have also proven worthy of featured roles with Saunders and Dinkins pushing for more snaps at various points in the season. Walker’s development is one of the most important storylines of the offseason. After an impressive freshman season, the 6-foot-6, 330-pound behemoth could be on the verge of turning into one of the best lineman in the SEC.
Leaving: Jordan Wright.
Eligibility remaining: Tyrese Fearbry, Noah Matthews, J.J. Weaver, Keaten Wade.
Newcomers: Grant Godfrey.
One of the most important decisions of the offseason will be whether Weaver, who participated in senior day despite having two years of eligibility remaining, elects to enter the NFL Draft. Injuries have slowed his career, but the potential remains for him to make the leap to All-SEC contender with a healthy senior season. If Weaver is back, his presence can help Fearbry, Matthews and Wade continue to develop at their own pace.
If Weaver leaves, Kentucky almost certainly will need to add an edge rusher through the transfer portal. As of now, Godfrey, a four-star high school signee, is the only newcomer signed for the position, and Stoops left open the possibility of Godfrey playing inside linebacker on signing day. Wade saw significant snaps as a freshman when Weaver and Wright were injured, so he has the inside track at replacing Wright in the starting lineup.
Leaving: Jacquez Jones, DeAndre Square.
Eligibility remaining: Luke Fulton, D’Eryk Jackson, Martez Thrower, Trevin Wallace.
Newcomers: Jayvant Brown.
Losing super senior captains Jones and Square leaves a big hole in the heart of UK’s defense both in on-field production and off-field leadership, but injuries to both players gave Jackson and Wallace a head start in taking over starting roles this fall. Both Wallace and Jackson have looked like a potential All-SEC contender at times, but losing the security blanket of Jones and Square could affect their development.
With depth an issue here, signing-day commitment Brown could have a path to early snaps. Kentucky could also elect to play Godfrey, who Stoops compared to former Wildcat star inside linebacker Jamin Davis, as a freshman. Anymore departures might necessitate a transfer portal addition in the coming months.
Leaving: Tyrell Ajian, Adrian Huey, Keidron Smith, Carrington Valentine.
Eligibility remaining: Alex Afari, Kobi Albert, Zion Childress, Taj Dodson, Jalen Geiger, Maxwell Hairston, Jordan Lovett, Andru Phillips, Elijah Reed, Jordan Robinson, Andre Stewart, Vito Tisdale.
Newcomers: Nasir Addison, Jeremiah Anglin, Ty Bryant, Jantzen Dunn, Jonquis Hardaway, Avery Stuart.
Kentucky must replace three of four starters in the secondary, but there are plenty of reasons to be excited about the depth at this position next season. Geiger and Tisdale, would have been starters this year if not for season ending injuries, should be healthy. Transfers Dunn and Hardaway will compete with Phillips, Hariston and Robinson for the starting cornerback spots.
One of the biggest developments for Kentucky’s defense in 2022 was the emergence of Lovett after Geiger’s season-ending injury in week two. Lovett more than held his own when forced into a larger role than expected. Now he looks like a budding star that could anchor the secondary for years to come.
Leaving: Colin Goodfellow, Matt Ruffolo.
Eligibility remaining: Wilson Berry, Cade Degraw, Clay Perry, Chance Poore, Jackson Smith.
The biggest addition for the Kentucky special teams units this offseason appears to be new coordinator Jay Boulware, who will be tasked with fixing the numerous special teams miscues that plagued the Wildcats in 2022. Boulware will have to replace the Wildcats starting kicker and punter after former walk-ons Ruffolo and Goodfellow exhausted their eligibility.
Berry, a former Australian Rules Football player, showed signs of promise when filling in for Goodfellow after an injury in November, but it is unclear if Boulware will prefer the Australian rugby-style punting Kentucky used to great success in recent years. After serving as the kickoff specialist, Poore could take over field goal duties if he returns for his extra year of eligibility, but Smith could also factor at the position. Long snapper is a position to watch as walk-ons Degraw and Perry both have eligibility remaining, but a change might be needed given the persistent snapping problems this fall.