The next stage of Kentucky football’s preparation for the 2023 season begins Monday with the start of spring practice.
The full squad is not yet available. Many of the 2023 high school signees will not arrive in Lexington until June. Several players recovering from offseason surgery or significant 2022 injuries will be limited or unavailable. There will probably be more movement from the transfer portal, both with additions and departures when the next transfer window opens in May.
But spring practice represents an important opportunity for players to stake a claim at the handful of starting jobs open for competition.
Here is a look at three key position battles to watch over the next month.
Northern Illinois transfer Marques Cox is the big addition to the offensive line, but he is working his way back from a foot injury that ended his 2022 season after just four games. When healthy, Cox is expected to start at left tackle for Kentucky, opening the door for several other linemen to move positions in an effort to get the Wildcats’ best group of five on the field together.
Super senior Kenneth Horsey, who spent 2022 playing out of position at left tackle, is a lock to start at one of the guard positions. Senior Eli Cox returns at center but can also play guard, where he was a midseason All-American in 2021 before suffering a season-ending hand injury. Sophomore Jager Burton started at left guard last season but could play right guard or center as well. Senior Jeremy Flax is expected to face competition to retain his starting right tackle position.
Alabama transfer Tanner Bowles could play guard or tackle. Sophomores David Wohlabaugh and Deondre Buford were listed at tackle and guard at various points in the 2022 season. How that trio progresses will say much about the depth of the unit.
Perhaps most importantly this spring will be learning how a group of young linemen who did not play significant snaps in 2022 that includes Grant Bingham, Paul Rodriguez, Nik Hall and Josh Jones have developed. Midyear high school enrollees Koby Keenum and Malachi Wood will also look to make an early impression.
The one-time free transfer rule has been a net positive for Kentucky since its inception, but the Wildcats finally lost a locked-in starter to the portal this offseason when nose guard Justin Rogers left for Auburn.
The good news is there are options to replace Rogers. How that group progresses this spring will say much about the ultimate impact of the loss of the former five-star recruit.
The top returning players are senior Josaih Hayes and sophomore Jamarius Dinkins. Hayes and Rogers opened the 2022 season in something of a timeshare at the position, but by the end of the year Dinkins had passed Hayes as Rogers’ primary backup.
Listed at 6-foot-3, 317 pounds on the roster, Hayes looks the part of the type of SEC nose guard that demands multiple blockers, but he has yet to consistently translate his potential into on-field production. Coaches have raved about Dinkins’ work ethic as he put in extra time in the weight room to go from an afterthought early in the season to a key member of the goal-line unit against No. 1 Georgia in November.
Hayes and Dinkins will face competition from North Carolina transfer Keeshawn Silver, a former five-star recruit like Rogers. Despite his considerable recruiting hype, Silver played only a handful of snaps in two years at North Carolina. There was some debate about which defensive line position Silver would play at Kentucky, but he told the Herald-Leader in January that he planned to play nose guard.
Spring practice will also offer coaches a chance to experiment with freshman All-America defensive tackle Deone Walker at nose guard if needed.
Both of Kentucky’s starters at the position are gone from last season with Carrington Valentine and Keidron Smith preparing for the NFL draft.
Junior Andru Phillips has to be considered the early favorite for one of the starting jobs after he started the Music City Bowl against Iowa following Valentine’s decision to opt out of the game, but sophomores Maxwell Hairston and Jordan Robinson also received praise from coaches in pre-bowl practices.
Kentucky could start a transfer at cornerback for the seventh time in eight years thanks to the additions of Cincinnati transfer JQ Hardaway and Ohio State transfer Jantzen Dunn. At 6-foot-3, Hardaway brings the size Stoops has coveted at the position. He is also more experienced than Dunn, who played primarily on special teams at Ohio State and missed significant time due to injury.
Spring practice could be an important opportunity for redshirt freshmen Elijah Reed and Andre Stewart to prove worthy of a spot in the rotation amid an influx of new talent to the position. Sophomore Alex Afari, who played a hybrid defensive back-linebacker role as a freshman, is a wildcard in the competition considering Stoops has said multiple times that he thinks Afari has the cover skills to play cornerback. Coaches were also experimenting with safety Vito Tisdale at cornerback last spring before his season-ending knee injury.
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