How family is helping Kentucky football's Dane Key as he seeks to lock up starting WR spot

Brett Dawson
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Sometimes, Dane Key admits, it’s a challenge to follow his father’s advice.

A freshman wide receiver on the Kentucky football team, Key is a second-generation Wildcat. His father, Donté Key, played linebacker and defensive end at UK from 1992-95. And the elder Key has told his youngest son to block out the buzz, put his head down and go to work. 

But that buzz is considerable. 

At SEC Media Days last month, Kentucky quarterback Will Levis called Key “a starter.” A product of Frederick Douglass High in Lexington, Key was a consensus four-star recruit who had offers from Oregon and South Carolina, among others. 

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And the expectation is that Key will make an immediate impact on an inexperienced wide receiver corps that Mark Stoops calls “definitely the most talented group we’ve had as a whole.”

So about shutting out that hype?

“It does get hard,” Key said. “But whenever it does get hard, I just got to call my family up. They’re on speed dial.”

In addition to his dad, Key leans on his brother, Devon Key, a former Western Kentucky star now with the Kansas City Chiefs. Devon Key ranks 10th in WKU history with 350 tackles, the most by a Hilltopper since the program made the move to FBS in 2009. 

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Kentucky wide receiver Dane Key (6) laughs with a teammate during the Kentucky Football Fan Day open practice on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022, at Joe Craft Football Training Center in Lexington, Kentucky.

“I always go talk to my brother a little bit more than my dad because my brother is fresh out of it, fresh out of college in the NFL right now,” Dane Key said. “So I go talk to my brother a lot. If I get frustrated, I go talk to him about what things he did in college.”

Airing those issues, Key said, helps him hit the field with “a clear head.”

Whatever he’s doing seems to be working. 

Key enrolled early at UK and was a standout in the spring, a quick study in Rich Scangarello’s NFL-style offense that Stoops concedes is “complex.” 

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“He's a special young man, definitely an impact player,” Stoops said at SEC Media Days. “You could see right away he has the mindset that he could pick things up.” 

There’s little doubt on the Kentucky staff that it’s at least in part a testament to his father, who now coaches linebackers at Frederick Douglass. 

Some NFL personnel staffers are drawn to the sons of former players, and Scangarello said there’s “no doubt in my mind” that growing up with a father who played at a high level “accelerates the process to learn the game.” 

Forget that neither Key’s father nor brother played his position in college. There’s an element of osmosis at play, coaches say, a knack for absorbing the game from having high-level players at home. 

“I think it’s kind of just the way (Key) was raised,” UK wide receivers coach Scott Woodward said. “My dad was a college football player, too, and was my high school coach. The expectation in the house growing up, I think that helps him a lot.”

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In theory, it should help Key manage the expectations that have followed him to Kentucky. 

But so far he’s done little to lower them. 

Though he’s still in the early days of prep for his first season, Key has made a point of impressing Levis. The freshman said he’s picked the QB’s brain about his relationship last season with star wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, asked how the two built their chemistry in the interest of replicating it. 

The Cats’ current receivers are doing many of the same things — talking through the offense with Levis, catching extra passes from him after practice and on weekends — in the interest of filling the void Robinson left when he exited for the NFL

Kentucky wide receiver Dane Key (6) misses catch while being guarding by defensive back Carrington Valentine (14) during the Kentucky Football Fan Day open practice on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022, at Joe Craft Football Training Center in Lexington, Kentucky.

“I kind of just show (Levis) that I can go out and compete at the college level,” Key said. “I want to just show him that he can trust me at any time of the game or anytime in a practice, that whenever he throws me the ball that I can go make that play.”

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It’s unlikely Key — or anyone else — will make as many as Robinson did last season, when he caught 104 passes for 1,334 yards and seven touchdowns. The goal, Key said, is for each receiver in the rotation to “try to do a little bit of what he did last year.” 

Key’s off to a good start in playing his part. 

But there’s a long way to go. 

So he thinks back to his father’s advice when he hears that Levis projected him as a starter or when a coach praises his approach.

“That's just the high praise that everybody around the facility gives me,” Key said. “I’m just thankful that everybody thinks of me that way. But I just still have to go out there and earn that spot.”