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Graham Shepherd

The ‘Cats finished the 2022 season with a 7-5 (3-5 SEC) record in the regular season. They finished last season with a shutout loss to Iowa (21-0), a game in which QB Will Levis chose to sit out. The offseason for the Wildcats included a carousel of personnel changes, including coaching changes, player departures, and additions of newcomers.


Following last season, the ‘Cats saw the likes of veteran stars QB Will Levis (218 YPG, 19 TD, 10 INT, 151.9 Passing Rating) and Chris Rodriguez (904 Yds, 6 TD) leave for the NFL draft where Levis was drafted 33rd overall to the Tennessee Titans, while Rodriguez fell to the 6th round (193rd overall) to the Washington Commanders. Fellow running back Kavosiey Smoke (277 Yds, 1 TD) left the program to pursue an opportunity with Deion Saunders at the University of Colorado. Defensive departures included Senior linebackers Jordan Wright (62 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 2.0 Sacks), DeAndre Square (58 tackles, 3.0 TFL) and Jaquez Jones (37 tackles, 1.5 TFL), along with Tyrell Aijan (31 tackles), Justin Rogers (35 tackles), and Carrington Valentine (48 tackles, 1 INT). Rogers left the ‘Cats through the transfer portal, while Valetine was the only defensive ‘Cats to be drafted, going 232nd overall to the Green Bay Packers.

Coaching departures included offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello and running backs coach John Settle.

Offseason Additions

Perhaps the most prominent addition to the 2023 version of the Kentucky Wildcats football team is the return of former Offensive Coordinator Liam Coen. Coen led the ‘Cats offense in the 2021 season, finishing that season with an offense that averaged 32.3 PPG and ended the season with a 20-17 win over Iowa to finish the year with a 10-3 record (No. 18 in final AP Poll). Coen landed the Los Angelos Rams offensive coordinator position the following season thanks to his success running the ‘Cats offense. However, Coen struggled with the Rams last season, finishing the season ranked 27th out of 32 in points for (18.1 PPG), while finishing the season with a 5-12 record. That lack of success led Coen and the ‘Cats to a reunion in the offseason, building the hype for a return of an explosive offense to Kroger Field. Jay Boulware also joined the Kentucky staff in the offseason, coaching the running backs and serving as the special teams coordinator.

Other important additions to the team came through the transfer portal this offseason. The most impressive addition coming from the QB position with NC State transfer Devin Leary. Leary had his season shortened by injury last year with the Wolfpack, but finished the 2021 season with an impressive 286 YPG while accumulating 35 TDs to just 5 INT throughout 12 games during the season. Other offensive additions include transfer RB Ray Davis (1211 total Yds, 8 TD) from Vanderbilt, RB Demie Sumo-Karngbaye from NC State, LT Marques Cox form Northern Illinois, RT Courtland Ford form USC, and C Tanner Bowles from Alabama. Kicker Alex Raynor also arrived in Lexington after transferring from Georgia Southern, finishing last season with a 90% conversion rate (18-20 FGM/FGA) and (49/50 XPM/XPA).

Defensive additions likely to contribute this season include LB transfer Daveren Rayner from Northern Illinois, CB JQ Hardaway from Cincinnati and true freshman Ty Bryant from Frederick Douglass High School in Lexington.

Returning Contributors

The biggest offensive returning contributors are highlighted by receivers Barion Brown (50 rec, 628 yds, 4 TD) and Dane Key (37 rec, 519 yds, 6 TD). WR Tayvion Robinson (40 rec, 497 yds, 3 TD) returns for his super senior season. A strong TE room that includes Brendan Bates, Josh Kattus, Jordan Dingle, and Izayah Cummings that combined for a total of 37 receptions, 444 yards and 5 TDs returns to the fold for the ‘Cats. Running backs Jutahn McClain (378 yds, 1 TD), La’Vell Wright (148 yds) bring some extra experience to the running back group while Ramon Jefferson also returns to the mix after tearing his ACL last year just 2 carries into the season.

Returning players for the defense include leading tackler LB D’Eryk Jackson (67 tackles, 4 TFL), FS Jordan Lovett (62 tackles, 2 INT), LB Trevin Wallace (54 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 2 INT), Senior LB JJ Weaver (47 tackles, 3 Sacks), rising star DT Deone Walker (40 tackles, 4.5 TFL), and SS Zion Childress (34 tackles) along with a barrage of other contributors on the defensive side of the ball for the ‘Cats.

Keys to Success

For the ‘Cats to have a dream-like season this year, they’ll need to establish a strong presence on both sides of the ball in the trenches. The offensive line was a definitive weakness a season ago, but the coaching staff hopes to have shored up some of the question marks heading into the season with offseason addition to the line (Cox, Ford, Bowles) and moving Burton to Center and Horsey back to his natural position at Left Guard. The defense was the ‘Cats strong suit last season, limiting opponents to just 19.2 PPG, good for 13th in the country. While the defense did lose some key veteran contributors, the ‘Cats hope to have filled those voids with young returning players like Walker, Wallace, Afari, Saunders, Lovett, and Hairston along with veterans Weaver, Childress, Oxendine, and Hayes. Transfer additions Silver (UNC) and Rayner (NIU) will also see the rotation for the ‘Cats. Most of the pressure will be on transfer QB Devin Leary this season as he looks to lead the ‘Cats to their full potential, running the offense in tandem with offensive coordinator Liam Coen, who is making his triumphant return to Lexington. Some reports out of spring camp noted that Leary has better touch on his throws and more consistent accuracy compared to former star QB Will Levis, who is preparing to begin his journey in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans after being drafted in the second round of the NFL draft. Leary won’t be short on receiving options with young star revivers Barion Brown and Dane Key returning to Lexington for their second season following impressive Freshman seasons from both players. Brown brings a speed and elusiveness to the game that Kentucky hasn’t seen since Lynn Bowden a few seasons ago. A strong TE core should also provide ample opportunities for Leary and Coen to get creative in their offensive scheme throughout the season. The running game will likely feature 3-4 different backs depending on game situation and flow, with Vanderbilt transfer Ray Davis likely to get the bulk of the carries.

Season Predictions

Week 1: Ball State (W)

Week 2: EKU (W)

Week 3: Akron (W)

Week 4: @ Vanderbilt (W)

Week 5: Florida (W)

Week 6: @ Georgia (L)

Week 7: Missouri (W)

Week 8: BYE

Week 9: Tennessee (L)

Week 10: @ Mississippi State (W)

Week 11: Alabama (L)

Week 12: @ South Carolina (L)

Week 13: @ Louisville (W)

Season Prediction (W/L): 8-4 (4-4 SEC)

Offensive MVP: QB Devin Leary

Runner-up: WR Barion Brown

Someone who could surprise on offense: TE Josh Kattus

Defensive MVP: LB JJ Weaver

Runner-up: DT Deone Walker

Somone who could surprise on defense: SS Zion Childress

The ‘Cats open the 2023 season at home on Saturday, September 2 versus Ball State. Kickoff is scheduled for 12:00 P.M. EST. The game will be televised on the SEC Network.

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