Kentucky soccer has one objective on the forefront of its 2022 season: Attain the Southeastern Convention championship at Atlanta’s Mercedes Benz Stadium.
“We break it down on that, all the things we do,” beginning quarterback Will Levis mentioned throughout SEC Media Days in July. “We simply wish to make certain all the things we do is in step with that objective.”
If the Wildcats wish to make that dream a actuality, they’re going to want some new playmakers to emerge round Levis and an skilled linebacker corps. Gone are electrical huge receiver Wan’Dale Robinson and line of defense anchor Josh Paschal, and senior operating again Chris Rodriguez’s standing stays unsure after he pleaded responsible to working a motorized vehicle underneath the affect in July.
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Who might burst onto the scene as an important member of UK’s quest to achieve its first convention championship sport in program historical past? Listed below are the more than likely candidates:
1. Dane Key, huge receiver
The most important impediment on Dane Key’s path to a breakout season could also be this: It’s going to be exhausting for the huge receiver to fly underneath the radar with the hype he has generated heading into his freshman 12 months with Kentucky.
The highest-rated highschool recruit within the Bluegrass State’s 2022 class, Key was labled “a starter” by Levis throughout SEC Media Days. Stoops mentioned the Fredrick Douglass graduate, who enrolled at UK early and went by means of spring follow with the Wildcats, is “a particular younger man, positively an impression participant.”
“You possibly can see immediately he has the mindset that he might decide issues up,” the pinnacle coach mentioned.
Key mentioned he and different members of UK’s inexperienced receiving corps have been placing in further work with Levis to foster the identical degree of chemistry the quarterback had with Robinson in the course of the wideout’s record-breaking 2021 marketing campaign.
Though it’s unlikely Key — or any of the Wildcats’ receivers — will be capable of match Robinson’s productiveness (104 receptions for 1,334 yards), the expectation is that he’ll make a right away impression on an offense seeking to set up new playmakers round Levis.
“I sort of simply present (Levis) that I can exit and compete on the faculty degree,” Key mentioned. “I wish to simply present him that he can belief me at any time of the sport or anytime in a follow, that each time he throws me the ball that I can go make that play.”
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2. Take your decide: Kentucky’s tight finish room
It’s tough to pinpoint simply one of many Wildcats’ tight ends who will emerge because the go-to man on the place for a few causes: Everybody stands to get their share of targets in Wealthy Scangarello’s offense, and there’s a very good probability UK will trot out a number of packages that includes a number of tight ends on the sector directly.
“There’s some actually dynamic gamers in that room,” Scangarello mentioned. “I do not know if there is a room that I am extra enthusiastic about or extra proud of the depth, the expertise and the kinds of gamers we now have.”
Large receiver convert Izayah Cummings, a former Male Excessive College star, led all returning tight ends with 14 catches for 195 yards and three touchdowns as a sophomore final season. Senior Brenden Bates had 11 receptions, one in every of which went for a landing, and redshirt freshman Jordan Dingle had two grabs.
All of these three gamers could possibly be in line for extra seems to be from Levis, particularly within the crimson zone with the departure of Robinson at wideout, and that’s simply scratching the floor of the Wildcats’ depth on the place.
Senior Keaton Upshaw is coming back from a season-ending harm two years faraway from a 2020 season through which he caught 16 passes for 198 yards and three touchdowns, and true freshman Josh Kattus has reportedly made a very good impression on tight ends coach Vince Marrow.
So who’s the breakout candidate? The most secure reply could also be a special participant each week.
“They discover totally different performs, totally different kind of schemes that arrange all of us to be nice,” Upshaw mentioned of UK’s offensive coaches. “So I really feel like it really works proper into (our) good arms.”
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3. Octavious Oxendine, line of defense
Octavious Oxendine was within the midst of a breakout season final fall when he suffered a knee harm in opposition to LSU that sidelined him for UK’s last seven video games. By means of the primary six, the North Hardin Excessive College grad tallied 15 complete tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.
Reducing again on his beloved rooster Alfredo, Oxendine reported to camp weighing 281 kilos after checking in at 318 final 12 months. He’s seen a distinction — “I really feel quicker,” he mentioned — and his coaches are seeing it, too.
“His weight is down, however he seems to be stronger,” defensive coordinator Brad White mentioned at the beginning of camp. “He is looser than he is ever been previously. He is a man that is brimming with confidence.”
Kentucky’s line of defense wants Oxendine to tackle an even bigger function with the departure of main tackler Paschal to the NFL, and the junior’s weight reduction journey seems to have put him heading in the right direction.
A more-versatile Oxendine bodes nicely for UK’s rotation-based strategy within the trenches, and line of defense coach Anwar Stewart has in contrast the Radcliff native’s preseason kind to that of Paschal, who weighed 278 kilos throughout his 2021 All-SEC marketing campaign.
“He’s enjoying actually quick,” Stewart mentioned of Oxendine. “Shoot, when he will get on the sting pass-rush-wise, he’s a really robust child and athletic, very twitchy. He’s enjoying lots like Josh Paschal.”
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4. Ramon Jefferson, operating again
With experiences of a multigame suspension looming for Rodriguez, FCS switch Ramon Jefferson stands to be a key a part of the Wildcats’ floor assault in the course of the season’s early going. If the Bronx native, who’s been dubbed “slightly Mighty Mouse” by Levis, is ready to construct some momentum throughout that stretch, there’s a very good probability he turns into a mainstay of UK’s backfield rotation when Rodriguez returns to the beginning lineup.
“He is received a very good really feel,” Levis mentioned. “You see he bounces it when he is speculated to bounce it, he cuts when he is supposed to chop.”
Jefferson, who rushed for 1,155 yards and 13 touchdowns with Sam Houston State in 2021, believes he has what it takes to make the bounce to the SEC.
“On the finish of the day, when you make the proper reads, you’re in the proper spot and you’ve got expertise, you can also make performs,” he mentioned. “That’s one thing that I all the time satisfaction myself on. Clearly transferring up, it’s one thing that you simply simply received to be fearless. You simply received to go for it. That’s one thing that I knew I used to be signing myself up for, and now I’m glad I did it.”
In Rodriguez’s anticipated absence, Jefferson might be splitting carries with fellow senior Kavosiey Smoke, juniors Mike Drennen and JuTahn McClain and redshirt freshman La’Vell Wright. Though it’s unclear which member of the committee might be RB1 when the offense takes the sector for the primary time in opposition to Miami (Ohio), Jefferson has extra in-game expertise than every other member of that group and isn’t any stranger to getting 15-plus carries each Saturday.
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5. Alex Afari Jr., defensive again
It took simply in the future of camp for freshman Alex Afari Jr. to command enjoying time on Kentucky’s protection.
“Discovering methods to assist him achieve success early goes to be a giant process for me and all the defensive employees,” White mentioned of the West Chester, Ohio, native. “As a result of, once you get particular athletes, you need to discover a option to allow them to contribute.”
Afari, the No. 8 general athlete prospect within the 2022 class, presents the Wildcats a “uncommon mix” of pace, measurement and size, White mentioned. The 6-2, 203-pound defensive again is competing with a number of upperclassmen for taking part in time in a secondary that’s with out injured junior Vito Tisdale, and teammates are seeing his potential.
“He is gonna be a real playmaker. I am wanting ahead to him enjoying on Saturdays and being on the market with him,” Ole Miss switch Keidron Smith advised Wildcats At the moment. “Seeing him decide up the protection as a freshman and being that younger and realizing what to do, going on the market and making performs, it is actually particular.”
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On the outset of camp, Stoops mentioned Afari will start his collegiate profession at nook — “one of many very hardest positions so far as utility” — however has the flexibility to additionally see time at nickel again. White hinted at particular groups being an early coaching floor for the freshman, however there is a risk he might work his approach into the rotation sooner relatively than later.
“Perhaps it isn’t going to be 70 snaps a sport,” White mentioned, “however you need to discover snaps early.”
Attain recruiting and trending sports activities reporter Brooks Holton at [email protected] and observe him on Twitter at @brooksHolton.