Ranking the top 5 Kentucky football players primed for a breakout 2022 season

Brooks Holton
Louisville Courier Journal

Kentucky football has one goal at the forefront of its 2022 season: Reach the Southeastern Conference championship at Atlanta's Mercedes Benz Stadium.

"We break it down on that, everything we do," starting quarterback Will Levis said during SEC Media Days in July. "We just want to make sure everything we do is in line with that goal."

If the Wildcats want to make that dream a reality, they'll need some new playmakers to emerge around Levis and an experienced linebacker corps. Gone are electric wide receiver Wan'Dale Robinson and defensive line anchor Josh Paschal, and senior running back Chris Rodriguez's status remains uncertain after he pleaded guilty to operating a motor vehicle under the influence in July.

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Who could burst onto the scene as a vital member of UK's quest to reach its first conference championship game in program history? Here are the most likely candidates:

1. Dane Key, wide receiver

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.

The biggest obstacle on Dane Key’s path to a breakout season may be this: It’s going to be hard for the wide receiver to fly under the radar with the hype he has generated heading into his freshman year with Kentucky.

The top-rated high school recruit in the Bluegrass State’s 2022 class, Key was labled "a starter" by Levis during SEC Media Days. Stoops said the Fredrick Douglass graduate, who enrolled at UK early and went through spring practice with the Wildcats, is “a special young man, definitely an impact player.”

"You could see right away he has the mindset that he could pick things up," the head coach said.

Key said he and other members of UK’s inexperienced receiving corps have been putting in extra work with Levis to foster the same level of chemistry the quarterback had with Robinson during the wideout’s record-breaking 2021 campaign.

Although it’s unlikely Key — or any of the Wildcats’ receivers — will be able to match Robinson’s productivity (104 receptions for 1,334 yards), the expectation is that he’ll make an immediate impact on an offense looking to establish new playmakers around Levis.

"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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2. Take your pick: Kentucky's tight end room

Kentucky’s Izayah Cumming scores a touchdown against Tennessee’s Trevon Flowers.
Nov. 6, 2012

It’s difficult to pinpoint just one of the Wildcats’ tight ends who will emerge as the go-to guy at the position for a couple of reasons: Everyone stands to get their share of targets in Rich Scangarello’s offense, and there’s a good chance UK will trot out several packages featuring multiple tight ends on the field at once.

"There's some really dynamic players in that room," Scangarello said. "I don't know if there's a room that I'm more excited about or more happy with the depth, the talent and the types of players we have."

Wide receiver convert Izayah Cummings, a former Male High School star, led all returning tight ends with 14 catches for 195 yards and three touchdowns as a sophomore last season. Senior Brenden Bates had 11 receptions, one of which went for a touchdown, and redshirt freshman Jordan Dingle had two grabs.

All of those three players could be in line for more looks from Levis, especially in the red zone with the departure of Robinson at wideout, and that’s just scratching the surface of the Wildcats’ depth at the position.

Senior Keaton Upshaw is returning from a season-ending injury two years removed from a 2020 season in which he caught 16 passes for 198 yards and three touchdowns, and true freshman Josh Kattus has reportedly made a good impression on tight ends coach Vince Marrow.

So who’s the breakout candidate? The safest answer may be a different player every week.

"They find different plays, different type of schemes that set up all of us to be great," Upshaw said of UK’s offensive coaches. "So I feel like it works right into (our) good hands."

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3. Octavious Oxendine, defensive line

Kentucky's Octavious Oxendine celebrates after a Wildcat stop against Florida in the first half Saturday night at Kroger Field in Lexington. Oct. 2, 2021

Octavious Oxendine was in the midst of a breakout season last fall when he suffered a knee injury against LSU that sidelined him for UK's final seven games. Through the first six, the North Hardin High School grad tallied 15 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.

Cutting back on his beloved chicken Alfredo, Oxendine reported to camp weighing 281 pounds after checking in at 318 last year. He’s noticed a difference — "I feel faster,” he said — and his coaches are seeing it, too.

"His weight is down, but he looks stronger," defensive coordinator Brad White said at the start of camp. "He's looser than he's ever been in the past. He's a guy that's brimming with confidence."

Kentucky’s defensive line needs Oxendine to take on a bigger role with the departure of leading tackler Paschal to the NFL, and the junior’s weight loss journey appears to have put him on the right track.

A more-versatile Oxendine bodes well for UK’s rotation-based approach in the trenches, and defensive line coach Anwar Stewart has compared the Radcliff native’s preseason form to that of Paschal, who weighed 278 pounds during his 2021 All-SEC campaign.

"He’s playing really fast," Stewart said of Oxendine. "Shoot, when he gets on the edge pass-rush-wise, he’s a very strong kid and athletic, very twitchy. He’s playing a lot like Josh Paschal."

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4. Ramon Jefferson, running back

University of Kentucky running back Ramon Jefferson. Aug. 3, 2022

With reports of a multigame suspension looming for Rodriguez, FCS transfer Ramon Jefferson stands to be a key part of the Wildcats’ ground attack during the season’s early going. If the Bronx native, who’s been dubbed “a little Mighty Mouse” by Levis, is able to build some momentum during that stretch, there’s a good chance he becomes a mainstay of UK’s backfield rotation when Rodriguez returns to the starting lineup. 

"He's got a good feel," Levis said. "You see he bounces it when he's supposed to bounce it, he cuts when he's supposed to cut."

Jefferson, who rushed for 1,155 yards and 13 touchdowns with Sam Houston State in 2021, believes he has what it takes to make the jump to the SEC.

"At the end of the day, if you make the right reads, you’re in the right spot and you have talent, you can make plays," he said. "That’s something that I always pride myself on. Obviously moving up, it’s something that you just got to be fearless. You just got to go for it. That’s something that I knew I was signing myself up for, and now I’m glad I did it."

In Rodriguez’s expected absence, Jefferson will be splitting carries with fellow senior Kavosiey Smoke, juniors Mike Drennen and JuTahn McClain and redshirt freshman La’Vell Wright. Although it’s unclear which member of the committee will be RB1 when the offense takes the field for the first time against Miami (Ohio), Jefferson has more in-game experience than any other member of that group and is no stranger to getting 15-plus carries every Saturday.

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5. Alex Afari Jr., defensive back

Kentucky’s Alex Afari jr. warms up during practice on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022.

It took just one day of camp for freshman Alex Afari Jr. to command playing time on Kentucky’s defense.

“Finding ways to help him be successful early is going to be a big task for me and the entire defensive staff,” White said of the West Chester, Ohio, native. "Because, when you get special athletes, you have to find a way to let them contribute."

Afari, the No. 8 overall athlete prospect in the 2022 class, offers the Wildcats a “rare blend” of speed, size and length, White said. The 6-2, 203-pound defensive back is competing with several upperclassmen for playing time in a secondary that’s without injured junior Vito Tisdale, and teammates are seeing his potential.

"He's gonna be a true playmaker. I'm looking forward to him playing on Saturdays and being out there with him," Ole Miss transfer Keidron Smith told Wildcats Today. "Seeing him pick up the defense as a freshman and being that young and knowing what to do, going out there and making plays, it's really special."

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At the outset of camp, Stoops said Afari will begin his collegiate career at corner — "one of the very hardest positions as far as application" — but has the versatility to also see time at nickel back. White hinted at special teams being an early training ground for the freshman, but there's a possibility he could work his way into the rotation sooner rather than later.

"Maybe it's not going to be 70 snaps a game,” White said, “but you have to find snaps early."

Reach recruiting and trending sports reporter Brooks Holton at bholton@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter at @brooksHolton.