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2023 Kentucky Position Previews: Secondary

2023 Kentucky Position Preview: Secondary

A Young But Talented Group

Game week is finally here. On Saturday Mark Stoops’ 11th Wildcat squad kicks off against Ball State. To help you get ready for the season we’ve been going position by position looking at the 2023 Cats. In case you missed it, our most recent ones featured the linemen and then the linebackers. Today we’ll finish up with the 2023 Kentucky Position Previews: Secondary. In addition, we’ll look at the special teams.

Strength In Numbers

Of the two secondary positions on Brad White’s defense, the safeties look to be 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 placing 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. Lovett has the free safety spot locked down while Childress is your strong safety.

Geiger’s return adds depth to an already strong group. He’s on the pre-season watch list for Comeback Player Of The Year.  Behind Geiger, Jaremiah Anglin, Brady Pierce, Nasir Addison, and Ty Bryant are all younger players pushing for playing time.

As we continue on with our 2023 Kentucky Position 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.  Smith had 46 tackles and two picks. Andru Phillips started in week one last season and made four starts overall. He finished 2o22 with 31 tackles and five pass breakups.  Nassir Addison, Jordan Robinson, Maxwell Hairston, and Elijah Reed are also names to watch. Also, look for top incoming freshman Avery Stuart to push for snaps.

As we’ve talked about quite a bit Kentucky was very successful through 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 recorded 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. Basically, 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.

As we finish up our 2023 Kentucky Position 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.

Super Senior Chance Poore returned for another year and has done a great job as Kentucky’s kickoff specialist but lost the place-kicking job twice, including once to Ruffolo.

To that end, Kentucky looked to the transfer portal bringing in Alex Raynor from Georgia Southern. In three years with the Eagles Raynor made 110 of 113 extra points and 45 of 59 field goals. A season ago he finished first in the Sun Belt with 103 points and 18 made field goals. As a result, he starts the year on the Lou Groza Award watch list for the nation’s best kicker.

The Cats also have Jackson Smith, a Boyle County native who named the top punter/kicker in the 2022 class.

Kentucky also brought in Lon Gaines of Temple as the long snapper. Given the Cats issues last year that could be one of the most important additions.

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.

The Cats are pretty well set in the return position. Barion Brown is one of the top kickoff return guys in the league. Tayvion Robinson has been a great punt return man his entire career. It can’t be stated enough the special teams must improve for Kentucky to have a great 2023.

Final Thoughts

When looking at the Wildcat defense, Afari, Childress, Geiger, and Lovett are four of Kentucky’s top 11 defenders. The key is finding playing time for everyone. At the end of the day, it’s a good problem for the coaching staff to have. As for the kicking game, new special teams coach Jay Boulware along with Stoops put extra emphasis on that area.

Thanks for checking out our 2023 Kentucky Position Preview: Secondary here at Last Word On College Football.


2023 Kentucky Position Preview: Secondary

Photo courtesy:  Scott Utterback/Courier Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK



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