After opt-outs, transfers, injuries these young Wildcats could shine in Music City Bowl

Big Blue Nation might need to keep a Kentucky football roster handy during the Music City Bowl on Saturday.

Gone are quarterback Will Levis, running back Chris Rodriguez and cornerback Carrington Valentine, who all opted out of the game to begin preparing for the NFL Draft. Linebacker DeAndre Square, tight ends Brenden Bates and Josh Kattus and defensive lineman Kahlil Saunders are among the players expected to miss the game due to injuries or other issues. As of bowl week, 11 Wildcats had left the team to enter the transfer portal, including tight end Keaton Upshaw, running back Kavosiey Smoke and wide receiver DeMarcus Harris.

Of the 23 offensive and defensive positions listed on the pre-Music City Bowl depth chart released Monday, only three had no changes from the final regular season depth chart.

“We talk about it every year… somebody has got to step up,” defensive coordinator Brad White said. “Somebody has got to grow.”

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Kentucky fans are already familiar with many of the players who will take on featured roles against Iowa, but there are several young backups who will probably see their first extensive snaps on offense or defense. Here is a look at four Wildcats who could use the Music City Bowl as a catapult into important roles in 2023.

QB Destin Wade

Kentucky’s new depth chart offered little hint at who will start at quarterback in place of Levis since it listed the starter as Kaiya Sheron or Wade or Deuce Hogan, but associate head coach Vince Marrow, who is calling offensive plays in the bowl, might have tipped his hand in a recent media session.

“Destin Wade is looking pretty good,” he said last week. “Getting an opportunity. All three quarterbacks, but Destin stood out to me today.”

We already know North Carolina State transfer Devin Leary, the top-ranked available quarterback in the transfer portal according to multiple national websites, will be Kentucky’s starting quarterback if healthy next season, but it is unlikely the Wildcats make it through an entire season with just one quarterback. Whoever plays best in the bowl could have the inside track to the backup job in 2023.

Wade is a former four-star recruit who faced doubts about whether he could stick at quarterback when he signed with Kentucky. Reviews during his redshirt season have been positive though, and he will make his college debut in his hometown in the Music City Bowl.

“I feel like honestly the talent has always been there,” offensive lineman Kenneth Horsey said of Wade. “I feel like the part that he’s progressed the most is commanding the huddle. When he came in here, he was kind of a shyer kind of guy who wasn’t quite ready to take on that role yet. … Of course coming from high school, that takes some time to be able to have that confidence and stuff like that.”

RB La’Vell Wright

Of the players on this list, Wright is probably the most familiar to fans already. The North Hardin High School graduate had a chance to lock down a spot in UK’s running back rotation in September while Rodriguez served a four-game suspension, but he totaled just 76 yards on 29 carries. After Rodriguez returned to the field, Wright tallied just nine carries in the final eight regular season games.

With Rodriguez and Smoke out of the bowl, junior JuTahn McClain is expected to start at running back, but Wright was the only other running back listed on the depth chart.

“La’Vell will get a great opportunity, too,” Marrow said. “I think people are going to see La’Vell a little bit more. I think La’Vell is in the same boat — he could be — as Benny (Snell) and CRod. He’s a tough kid. Big kid, but tough. Excited about the chance he’s going to get.”

Vanderbilt transfer Ray Davis and McClain will probably open 2023 as Kentucky’s top running backs, but Wright is the biggest running back of the group. If he could turn a strong bowl performance into a productive offseason, carries should be available as a power option.

WR Jordan Anthony

Freshmen Dane Key and Barion Brown wasted no time proving they were capable of contributing at the Southeastern Conference level, but there could be more production from Kentucky’s class of 2022 wide receivers on the way.

Five wide receivers have entered the transfer portal since the regular season finale, so there are snaps available in the bowl for freshmen Anthony and Brandon White, who were listed as backups on the depth chart this week. Both freshmen were high school track stars, but Anthony has generated the most buzz after winning the national under-20 title in the 200-meter dash last summer.

Anthony appeared in just one game in the regular season. He looked open for a possible touchdown against Youngstown State that Levis was unable to complete due to pressure. With points likely to be a premium against Iowa’s stingy defense, it would not be a surprise to see UK’s offensive coaches try to scheme ways to get Anthony the ball in space and let his speed take over.

“You look at the wideouts and some of the young receivers that maybe redshirted and you see them out there right now,” UK Coach Mark Stoops said. “You see a different level of speed, and it’s kind of fun to watch those guys and see them continue to get better.”

CB Jordan Robinson

Kentucky listed its starting cornerbacks as super senior Keidron Smith and sophomore Andru Phillips on the pre-bowl depth chart. With Smith playing his final college game in Nashville and Valentine already ending his Kentucky career, cornerback will feature two new starters next season.

Phillips has the inside track to one of those jobs, but he shined while playing nickel back late in the regular season. Redshirt freshman Maxwell Hairston, who served as the third cornerback while Phillips played nickel back, has a chance to earn a starting job, too.

But it’s Robinson, the 6-foot-4 transfer from Division II Livingstone College who is the most intriguing prospect of the bunch. Little is known about Robinson’s progress as he appeared in just three games in the regular season while redshirting, but defensive coordinator Brad White mentioned him as a player who will see a larger role in the bowl following Valentine’s opt-out.

Kentucky has already signed two cornerback transfers in Ohio State’s Jantzen Dunn and Cincinnati’s JQ Hardaway. With competition at the position likely to increase this spring, Robinson would be well served to make a statement in the bowl. He is easily the biggest cornerback on the roster, offering a look his teammates cannot replicate.

Music City Bowl

Where: Nissan Stadium in Nashville

Records: Kentucky (7-5, 3-5 SEC), Iowa (7-5, 5-4 Big Ten)

Series: Kentucky leads 1-0

Last meeting: Kentucky won 20-17 on Jan. 1 in the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla.

©2022 Lexington Herald-Leader. Visit kentucky.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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