Mark Stoops’s depth chart will change between now and his Kentucky football team’s season opener. That’s inevitable.
But it probably won’t change much.
And that’s a testament to what Stoops has built at UK.
There was a time when the Wildcats’ highly regarded recruits routinely factored into fall position fights. But with some notable exceptions, most of Kentucky’s fresh faces with shots at starting spots have been around since spring practice. The Wildcats have enough veteran talent and depth these days that it’s not always easy to crack the rotation early.
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Yes, UK needs help from newcomers in some problem spots.
So while the projected opening-day depth chart looks a lot like the one coming out of spring practice, there are some new names here — some of them with a chance at claiming No. 1 spots if not by Sept. 3 then over the course of the season.
A look at how UK figures to line up for its opener against Miami (Ohio):
Starting: Will Levis
Backups: Kaiya Sheron, Deuce Hogan
Levis returns after a breakout season that followed his transfer from Penn State, and UK has no question about his fitness for the starting spot. But the backups — particularly in the wake of Beau Allen’s decision to transfer — are a weak spot. Keeping Levis healthy is crucial for the Cats’ success, an iffy proposition even for a physical force like Levis, given his propensity to run head-on into contact and UK’s relative uncertainty at left tackle.
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Starting: La’Vell Wright
Backups: Kavosiey Smoke, JuTahn McClain, Ramon Jefferson (Chris Rodriguez)
This one gets a little tricky. Rodriguez pleaded guilty last month to a charge of operating a motor vehicle under the influence stemming from a May arrest. He’s been practicing with the Wildcats, but Stoops has been noncommittal about his playing availability. Assuming Rodriguez is out for the opener — he did not start with the first-team offense in UK’s first open practice but did get reps with it — the starter could be any of a number of talented backups. Wright, who probably brings the closest approximation to Rodriguez’s mix of size and skillset, is as good a guess as any. Lots of these guys will play, and some of UK’s backups, including Mike Drennen II, could see time as slot receivers, too.
Starters: Tayvion Robinson, Dane Key, DeMarcus Harris
Backups: Barion Brown, Chris Lewis, Rahsaan Lewis, Chauncey Magwood, Jordan Anthony
There’s lots of flexibility here, given the number of wideouts who could see the field. Key, a true freshman who enrolled in the winter and went through spring practice, was with the first-team offense when it first took the field at UK’s first open practice and seems like perhaps the safest bet in the freshman class to start from Week 1 Robinson has all but had a lock on the starting slot position since he transferred from Virginia Tech. Brown might not land a starting spot by the opener but expect to see plenty of him. He made a strong early impression at practice.
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Starting: Keaton Upshaw
Backups: Izayah Cummings, Brenden Bates, Josh Kattus
This should be the best and deepest tight end corps of Stoops’ tenure, and new offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello plans to keep them involved. It seems unlikely true freshman Kattus can get significant snaps with so many talented veterans in front of him, but he impressed Levis early in camp. UK also could use Tennessee transfer Dee Beckwith for some snaps at tight end, but competition is fierce given the talent at the top in Upshaw and Cummings.
Starters: Deondre Buford (left tackle), Kenneth Horsey (left guard), Eli Cox (center), Tashawn Manning (right guard), Jeremy Flax (right tackle)
Backups: Kiyaunta Goodwin (LT), John Young (LG), Quintin Wilson (C), Jager Burton (RG), David Wohlabaugh (RT)
The o-line has been a staple of Stoops’ most successful UK teams, and this unit looks strong inside. The question mark is a lack of experience at the tackle positions. Although he’s a freshman, Goodwin is massive and was the subject of a heated recruiting battle. He could grab a starting spot and figures to be in the rotation regardless. Protecting Levis will be a major storyline this season, and shoring up the tackle spots is critical as Kentucky progresses through camp and into the season.
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Starters: Octavious Oxendine (defensive tackle), Justin Rogers (nose guard), Tre’vonn Rybka (defensive end)
Backups: Deone Walker (DT), Darrion Henry-Young (DT), Josaih Hayes (NG), Kahlil Saunders (DE)
Josh Paschal was a force on the UK defensive front, and he’ll be a challenge to replace. But there’s solid talent on the line. A healthy Oxendine is a boost to tackle, but keep an eye on freshman Deone Walker. He got some first-team reps early in practice and looks like a rotation candidate from the get-go.
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Starters: JJ Weaver (jack), Jacquez Jones (middle), DeAndre Square (weakside), Jordan Wright (strongside)
Backups: Keaten Wade (jack), D’Eryk Jackson (middle), Trevin Wallace (weakside), Tyrese Fearby (strongside)
Linebacker figures to be the strength of the starting defense, a group rich in talent and game reps. The depth is worth watching, both in terms of rotating players this season and building a foundation for 2023. Jones, Square and Wright are all fifth-year seniors. In Wade, Fearby and Noah Matthews, Stoops said UK has “good young guys that have different talents.”
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Starters: Carrington Valentine, Keidron Smith
Backups: Andru Phillips, Kobi Albert, Adrian Huey, Alex Afari Jr.
This was the biggest area of concern coming out of spring ball and it remains so. Smith should help. The Ole Miss transfer mostly ran with the second team in Kentucky’s fan day practice, but he saw snaps with the projected starters at the end of the day, and the guess is that’s where he lands by the start of the season. At 6-foot-2, he fits UK’s cornerback profile. The Cats prefer some size at the position, and he’ll provide it, along with experience.
Starters: Tyrell Ajian, Jalen Geiger
Backups: Taj Dodson, Jordan Lovett, Zion Childress
UK is loaded with game experience here. Ajian started 11 games last season and played in all 13, and he’s logged 48 games in his UK career. Geiger has just two starts, both last season, but has 22 games under his belt. Dodson has 19 career games. Lovett played once last season and took a redshirt. And Childress had 76 tackles in 24 games at Texas State before transferring. The Cats’ depth at nickel took a hit with Joel Williams’ preseason decision to transfer.
Starting: Matt Ruffolo
Backup: Jackson Smith
Starting: Wilson Berry
Backups: Colin Goodfellow
Starting: Tayvion Robinson
Backups: Jordan Anthony, Dekel Crowdus
Starting: JuTahn McClain
Backup: Mike Drennen II
Stoops has said that Ruffolo and Goodfellow “will be the guys right now until they get beat out,” but Berry feels like a candidate to win the punter spot. The redshirt freshman hails from Maribyrnong, Australia, and favors the Aussie punting style that was so successful for former Wildcat Max Duffy. Robinson returned punts for three seasons at Virginia Tech and averaged 13.1 return yards last season, scoring one touchdown. Kick returner is a guess at this point, but UK has a number of running backs who could slide into that position.