Cats Need Younger Players To Step Up
Hello everyone and welcome back to our ongoing look at the 2023 Kentucky Wildcats. Recently we’ve been focusing on the defense. First, it was the defensive line and then the linebackers. Much like the linebackers it’s a similar theme in the defensive backfield. Three of the four starters from 2022 are gone however Kentucky has several players expected to fill those roles. Let’s look at the players who could step up with our 2023 Kentucky Spring Preview: Secondary. In addition, we’re shining a light on the special teams, who must improve in 2023.
Strength In Numbers
Of the two secondary positions on Brad White’s defense, the safeties look ahead of the corners. Jordan Lovett shined in 2022 after a season-ending injury to starter Jalen Geiger. As a sophomore Lovett played in all 13 games finishing second on the team in tackles with 62. In addition, he had two interceptions which placed him eighth in the SEC. As a result, College Football News named him an honorable mention All-American.
One of the stars of the spring was Zion Childress. Last year the Texas State transfer played in every game totaling 34 tackles, two pass breakups, and a sack. He had his best game against national champion Georgia where he made a season-high nine stops as Kentucky gave the Bulldogs all they could handle.
Geiger was able to practice on a limited basis this spring and his return adds depth to an already strong group. Behind Geiger, Jaremiah Anglin, Brady Pierce, Nasir Addison and Ty Bryant are all younger players pushing for playing time. Another player who was expected to have a bounce-back season was Vito Tisdale. However, after coming back from a knee injury he was dismissed from the team and has since entered the transfer portal.
As we continue on with our 2023 Kentucky Spring Preview: Secondary let’s move to the cornerback spot where the Kentucky defense must replace some key players.
Next Man Up
Heading into 2023 Kentucky lost both of their starting cornerbacks, Carrington Valentine and Keidron Smith. Valentine made 48 tackles, defended 10 passes, and had an interception. He’s a projected late-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. Smith had 46 tackles and two picks. He’s hoping for a late-round call from the NFL. Andru Phillips started in week one last season and made four starts overall. He finished 2o22 with 31 tackles and five pass breakups. Jordan Robertson and Maxwell Hairston are also names to watch.
As we’ve talked about quite a bit Kentucky was very successful in the transfer portal. Two of the incoming players JQ Hardaway and Jantzen Dunn will compete for playing time immediately. Hardaway made seven tackles and had a sack for the Bearcats. Dunn, a Bowling Green native, and four star player appeared in four games for Ohio State but had no stats. Both players have three years of eligibility remaining.
Playing All Over The Field
We can’t wrap up a look at the Kentucky secondary without talking about Alex Afari. Listed as a defensive back the Cincinnati native plays the hybrid position in White’s defense. What that means is he’ll line up anywhere from defensive end to outside linebacker to nickelback. As a freshman he played in all 13 games, starting three. He made 21 tackles, including three for a loss, along with a sack. The staff thinks he’s poised for a breakout year.
As we finish up our 2023 Kentucky Spring Preview: Secondary we look at special teams.
Not-So Special Teams
Saying the Wildcat special teams’ performance was “subpar” is an understatement. Kicking woes cost the Cats a win at Ole Miss. That loss cost them a chance at a much better bowl game. Constant issues with long snapping caused Matt Ruffolo to make only 16 of 24 field goals and 25 of 27 extra points. New special teams coach Jay Boulware along with head coach Mark Stoops put extra emphasis on the kicking game this spring.
Super Senior Chance Poore gets the early nod as Ruffolo’s replacement. He’s done a great job as Kentucky’s kickoff specialist but lost the place-kicking job twice, including once to Ruffolo. Behind Poore is Jackson Smith, a Boyle County native who ProKicker.com named the top punter/kicker in the 2022 class.
Australian punter Wilson Berry started the 2021 year as a punter but lost the job to Colin Goodfellow following a back injury. When Goodfellow was injured in the Missouri game Berry averaged 41 yards a punt over the last four games. It can’t be stated enough the special teams must improve for Kentucky to have a great 2023.
Thanks for checking out our 2023 Kentucky Spring Preview: Secondary here at Last Word On College Football. All eyes now turn to former Cats for the upcoming NFL Draft. The big question for the Big Blue Nation is where Will Levis starts his pro career.
Photo courtesy: Scott Utterback/Courier Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK