Kentucky football: 6 surprises who have helped fuel Wildcats' hot start
Kentucky is 3-0 and a massive favorite to move into the month of October with a 4-0 mark and a Top 10 ranking.
Granted, a 10-win season would be the 3rd in 5 years for head coach Mark Stoops, but the 2022 season is off to an exciting start, even for a program on the uptick.
Here are 6 pleasant surprises who have helped the 8th-ranked Wildcats arrive at their current lofty spot:
1. Dane Key, wide receiver
The surprise isn’t that Key played — that was well understood when he was listed as a true freshman starter in the Game 1 depth chart. The surprise isn’t even that he contributed.
That was expected.
What might not have been expected is his consistency and his immediate impact, with 13 catches for 226 yards and 3 touchdowns. With a TD catch in each of UK’s first 3 games, Key has already tied the Wildcats’ freshman receiving TD season mark — in September.
His ability to succeed on a variety of different routes and in different situations underlines just how exceptional Key has been. Deep ball? No problem. Short pass over the middle? He can do it. Red zone fade? Key is like an automatic pass-interference play.
It’s not that he’s playing. It’s not that he’s good. It’s how good he is this quickly that’s been the surprise with Key.
2. Chauncey Magwood, wide receiver
Magwood came off a season when he made exactly 1 catch and was kind of overlooked on the depth chart. But hidden behind Key, freshman Barion Brown, Tayvion Robinson and a bunch of tight ends, the 6-foot sophomore from Georgia is making a name for himself.
Whether it was a red zone touchdown in the opener or a pair of catches for 47 yards in The Swamp, Magwood is getting himself open and making plays. It’s not hard to imagine him moving up the depth chart.
3. Barion Brown, wide receiver
Like Key, there was an expectation that Brown would contribute. But a 100-yard kick return for a score in Week 1? Well, it was Kentucky’s first since 2009.
Stoops has liked to use walk-on receivers in the kick returner role, and the elusiveness of Brown is a wild card back there. Brown has also caught 9 passes for 99 yards and even carried the ball once.
Some have hinted that offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello has even bigger plans for Brown once Kentucky moves out of “thin the playbook, give nothing away” mode after the Northern Illinois game on Saturday.
4. Alex Afari, defensive back
A highly touted recruit from Cincinnati, file Afari with Key and Brown as guys whose good play is not surprising but whose rapid rise toward standing out might be.
Afari is tied for 5th on the team in tackles and his 2.5 tackles for loss is second only to Jordan Wright. Afari’s aggressiveness and ability to find the football make him like a defensive magnet.
Kentucky’s secondary has been a bit banged up, and that has only afforded Afari more of an opportunity to shine.
5. Carrington Valentine, cornerback
A year ago, Kentucky’s secondary was torched by Mississippi State and Tennessee, and seemed to be held together with scotch tape and the good fortune of not playing many passing teams. The Wildcats’ likely most improved player, Valentine has gone from someone opposing offenses targeted to a player they’re learning to leave alone.
In 3 games, Valentine has broken up 6 passes and made an interception. He’s already topped his productivity from a year ago and is actually tied for the national lead in passes broken up.
Admittedly, those same Bulldogs and Volunteers await, but Valentine looks like a different player.
6. Deone Walker, defensive lineman
Another freshman, another player who has surprised by standing out right away.
Walker, a massive 4-star recruit from Michigan, has been perhaps UK’s best player on the defensive line. With 9 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss, he’s giving full-time production to the Wildcats in part-time minutes.
While the offensive lines in the SEC will be a big test, Walker’s speed at his size is nothing short of shocking.
Also shocking is Walker being a standout contributor in the SEC from Day 1.