Kentucky football preview: What you need to know about the 2023 Wildcats

14-17 minutes 8/27/2023
The Kentucky football team that takes the field for its 2023 season opener against Ball State will look little like the one that ended the 2022 season with a shutout loss to Iowa in the Music City Bowl.
Liam Coen is back as offensive coordinator after a one-year stint as the coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams. Kentucky added 14 transfers from Division I programs in an effort to fill the holes exposed by the 2022 struggles then exacerbated by graduation and NFL Draft entries. Five of the seven players elected team captains last season are gone.
“I think it’s pretty obvious that we have to get back to being who we are at Kentucky,” UK Coach Mark Stoops said this summer. “We’ve always been a physical football team, and it started up front and playing physical on the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
“I feel like we fell short of that a year ago. Obviously, we have to improve. We have to protect the quarterback. We have to be physical and have some balance.”
Staff changes at offensive coordinator and special teams coordinator were made in hopes of addressing some of those issues, but the influx of transfers could have the biggest impact.
Included in the 14 transfers are projected starters at quarterback (Devin Leary), running back (Ray Davis), left tackle (Marques Cox), right tackle (Courtland Ford), kicker (Alex Raynor) and long snapper (Ron Gaines). Other transfers will compete for featured roles at nose guard (Keeshawn Silver), cornerback (J.Q. Hardaway and Jantzen Dunn) and inside linebacker (Daveren Rayner).
Stoops has openly discussed the challenges of maintaining the culture he has built over more than a decade at Kentucky with so many new contributors, but the ability to immediately fill holes on the roster with veteran transfers provides hope for a bounce-back season despite losing 13 starters, including stars Will Levis and Chris Rodriguez.
“I think even between last year and right now, I learned different things,” Stoops said. “The approach has got to be different. … I think last year was the first year that it just kind of hit me, hit us, like right in the face, what you’re dealing with, the change. I’m not saying good, bad or indifferent, it’s just different. We’re adapting.”
Key losses: Levis became the first Kentucky quarterback picked in the NFL Draft since 2008 when the Tennessee Titans selected him in the second round. The Wildcats must also replace Rodriguez, who ended his career ranked fifth on the program’s all-time rushing yards list. Kentucky returns its top three wide receivers, but almost all the experienced backups at the position transferred in search of more snaps. At least one starter on the offensive line must be replaced with right guard Tashawn Manning in the Baltimore Ravens’ camp.
Kentucky’s biggest loss to the transfer portal was nose guard Justin Rogers, a former five-star recruit who will play for Auburn this fall. Linebackers Jordan Wright, DeAndre Square and Jacquez Jones, all 2022 team captains, are gone. Both starting cornerbacks, including Green Bay Packers seventh-round pick Carrington Valentine, need to be replaced. Kentucky will have a new primary place kicker for the first time since 2019 after Matt Ruffolo exhausted his eligibility.
Rising star: Defensive tackle Deone Walker earned Freshman All-America honors during his debut season, but coaches and teammates have made it clear they expect even more from the 6-foot-6, 348-pound behemoth after a full offseason in the Wildcats’ strength and conditioning program.
“I’m pushing him to be elite,” defensive line coach Anwar Stewart said. “I don’t want him to be good. I don’t want him to be great. I want him to be elite. … He has the elite ability to just freaking shut down everything.”
Stoops joked after Kentucky’s second preseason scrimmage he had to take Walker off the field so the offense could get a play off. Maybe that is more reason for concern for the offensive line, but Kentucky can hope that it is simply a sign that opponents will have just as much trouble blocking its star defensive lineman this season.
Biggest area of concern: No surprise here. After ranking 126th of 131 teams nationally in sacks allowed last season, all eyes are on the offensive line. The hope is the addition of five transfers on the offensive line provides at least one new starter and the type of competition at other positions that was missing in 2022. Coaches and teammates have raved about Cox’s work at left tackle since he joined the team from Northern Illinois in the winter. That addition allowed Kenneth Horsey to move back to his natural left guard position. Eli Cox and Jager Burton will swap positions from their 2022 starting roles with Eli Cox moving to right guard, where he was a midseason All-American in 2021, and Burton taking over center duties.
Kentucky is unlikely to have fully settled its right tackle competition when the season opens, though. Jeremy Flax, who started 12 games there last season, is back, but Ford was added as a transfer from Southern Cal with hopes of him winning the starting job. Coen has expressed confidence in recent weeks that the fact no starter has emerged is a sign the competition is strong rather than a reason for concern, but until we see this unit perform it will remain Kentucky’s biggest worry.
Most important unit: At this point it seems safe to assume Brad White’s Kentucky defense will be a strength, but the play of Kentucky linebackers could determine if that unit can be elite. Outside linebacker J.J. Weaver hopes his offseason work can position him for a Josh Allen-like jump as a senior. It would be unreasonable to expect him to duplicate Allen’s 2018 National Defensive Player of the Year performance, but staying healthy while providing consistent pressure on the quarterback would be a major boost for a defense that 104th nationally in sacks last season. Inside linebackers D’Eryk Jackson and Trevin Wallace gained plenty of experience filling in for Square and Jones due to injuries last season and might be more talented than the veterans they are replacing.
Toughest opponent: Kentucky must travel to two-time defending national champion and preseason No. 1 Georgia on Oct 7. It is easy to imagine a scenario where both teams are undefeated for that game as they were in the 2021 “College GameDay” matchup in Athens, but Kentucky’s light September schedule means we still might not know much about the Wildcats’ possible ceiling by that point. Kentucky has lost 13 straight to Georgia. Four of the last five meetings have been decided by 17 points or less, but Georgia was never truly threatened in those games.
Must-win games: To have any hope of a special season, the Wildcats must sweep the September slate against Ball State, Eastern Kentucky, Akron and Vanderbilt. You can throw the Governor’s Cup rivalry game against Louisville into the “must win” category if the goal is improving the 2022 win total. With annual swing games against South Carolina and Mississippi State on the road this season, winning home games against Florida and Missouri becomes all the more important.
Toughest road trip: Georgia is the easy answer here, but recent history suggests the Nov. 4 game at Mississippi State will be difficult, too. Kentucky has not won in Starkville since 2008 with six straight losses at Davis Wade Stadium.
Game that will pack the house: Kentucky has already announced sellouts for home games against Florida (Sept. 30), Tennessee (Oct. 28) and Alabama (Nov. 11). As of Aug. 18, fewer than 1,500 tickets remained for the homecoming game against Missouri (Oct. 14). Selling out all the home SEC games before the season even starts would be quite the feat for Kentucky.
Upset special: It is difficult to look at Kentucky’s embarrassing performance in a 44-6 loss at Tennessee last season and think the Wildcats will have much chance against their border rivals this season, but the timing of the game works in Kentucky’s favor. Tennessee will travel to Kroger Field for Oct. 28 game after back-to-back games against Texas A&M and Alabama. If the Volunteers’ offense takes a step back after losing quarterback Hendon Hooker, Kentucky could be well-positioned for an upset after its bye week.
Best visitors: ESPN’s most recent 2024 NFL mock draft included two Alabama players (cornerback Kool-Aid McKinstry and edge rusher Dallas Turner) in the top 10. Florida cornerback Jason Marshall was the only other visiting player scheduled to play at Kroger Field this year in the first round of that mock draft. Alabama offensive lineman JC Latham was named preseason first-team All-SEC by the league coaches. Tennessee’s high-octane offense will be led by quarterback Joe Milton and wide receiver Bru McCoy.
Bowl outlook: Since the Sugar and Rose bowls are playoff semifinal games this year, an SEC team could play in any of the Cotton, Orange, Fiesta and Peach bowls if it finishes in the playoff committee’s top 12 but outside the four-team playoff. The Citrus Bowl gets first pick of SEC teams after the playoff committee fills the New Year’s Six games.
Most preseason bowl projections have Kentucky falling into the SEC’s “Pool of Six” tier of games again. That tier includes the ReliaQuest, Gator, Music City, Texas, Duke’s Mayo and Liberty bowls. The SEC will not send Kentucky to the Music City Bowl for a second consecutive season, but the other five bowls could all be possible postseason destinations. If Kentucky can reach eight regular-season wins, the ReliaQuest Bowl (formerly the Outback Bowl) might be the most likely destination since the Wildcats have not played there since 1999.
The 2023 season will be a success if: The Wildcats win at least eight regular-season games. A fast start to the season could reignite last summer’s dreams of contending in the SEC East race, but the gap between Kentucky and Georgia remains substantial. Improving the 2022 win total is the minimum standard for success this season. For now, Kentucky looks like a heavy underdog against Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama. Without an upset from that group of games, the Wildcats will need to lose no more than one game against Vanderbilt, Florida, Missouri, Mississippi State, South Carolina and Louisville.
The 2022 season is a disappointment if: The Wildcats repeat 2022’s struggles. Yes, the blowout at Tennessee was embarrassing last season, but it was the home losses to Vanderbilt and South Carolina that were more concerning. While the SEC is abandoning divisions after this season, Kentucky must prove it can stay in the tier above those programs to have any hope of contending in an SEC where it regularly plays games against the current West Division powers. To do that, Kentucky must show its transfer portal work was sufficient to fix the offensive line issues and fill the hole at quarterback.
2023 UK season opener
Ball State at Kentucky
When: Sept. 2 at noon
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
2022 records: Ball State 5-7 (3-5 Mid-American Conference), Kentucky 7-6 (3-5 Southeastern Conference)
Series: Kentucky leads 1-0
Last meeting: Kentucky won 28-20 on Sept. 8, 2001, in Lexington.

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