A decade ago, Kentucky football was in a very different place. Coming off a 5-7 season under 2nd-year head coach Joker Phillips, the Wildcats were about to go 2-10. Phillips was about to get fired, and Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops would soon be hired.

Needless to say, the fortunes of UK football have taken an upward path in the past decade.

Stoops (59-53) needs 2 more wins to break Bear Bryant’s program wins record, the Wildcats won double-digit games in 2018 and 2021, and Kentucky’s player development over recent seasons rivals that of any program in the nation.

So who are the guys who made the change? These picks are for the 10 most valuable players — not necessarily the biggest names, not necessarily the best … but here are 10 players who were key in taking Kentucky football from something nearing the outhouse to something nearing the penthouse.

10. Austin MacGinnis, K

Yes, kickers aren’t “real” football players. But the big kicks MacGinnis made were every bit as valuable as game-saving tackles or catches. In 3 seasons as a starter, MacGinnis made 51-of-64 field-goal tries and missed only 2 extra points.

Among his biggest kicks were a 51-yarder on the last play of a 2016 win over Mississippi State and a 48-yard field goal with seconds left to upend Lamar Jackson and Louisville on the road. For a couple of Stoops teams that always seemed to end up in close games, MacGinnis was a major weapon.

9. Stephen Johnson, QB

The statistics aren’t eye-popping, and Johnson retired from football after his UK days, so no NFL moments will boost his stock. But with the program teetering on the edge of disaster after what was essentially a career-ending injury to 4-star QB Drew Barker early in the 2016 season, Johnson was handed the starting job and a new offense in Week 3. Not only did Johnson survive, but he led Kentucky to its first bowl appearance in 6 seasons, playing his best in outshining Lamar Jackson in the 2016 upset of Louisville.

He helped Kentucky return to another bowl in 2017, diving into the end zone to beat Tennessee on an injured shoulder. For his cool leadership under pressure, Johnson earns his spot on the list easily.

8. Chris Rodriguez, RB

After Benny Snell’s UK career was finished, Rodriguez filled the mold of a bullish running back who helped move the first down markers. Coming into his senior season, C-Rod has amassed 2,739 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns. Rodriguez’s 6.6 yards per carry demonstrates his ability to break the first line and reach the second level of even SEC defenses. With 15 100-yard rushing performances entering his senior season, Rodriguez will be key for UK in 2022.

7. Drake Jackson, C

The hardest part of ranking players is contemplating Kentucky’s outstanding offensive line play over the past half-dozen years. Of course, there aren’t a ton of stats and rankings of offensive linemen. But Kentucky’s outstanding rushing attack has largely been based on the hard work of the guys in the trenches. Among the players who could be listed here are Jon Toth, Bunchy Stallings, Landon Young, Luke Fortner and Darian Kinnard. But Jackson, who took over the starting role at center in mid-2017, might have been the best. He started 44 consecutive games at center — including 4 different bowl games.

6. Mike Edwards, DB

As a defensive guy, Stoops watched a couple of subpar UK defenses early in his tenure before his early recruits matured into stardom. Edwards was one of the guys who led the turnaround. His 319 career tackles made him just the 2nd Wildcat of the 21st century to reach 300. A 3-time All-SEC pick, Edwards had 10 interceptions, including 2 picks of Lamar Jackson in Kentucky’s 2016 upset of Louisville. Edwards never missed a game at UK and was a major factor in UK’s rise to defensive prosperity.

5. Wan’Dale Robinson, WR

The challenge of assessing a guy like Robinson is that he was a Wildcat for 1 season. That said, what a season it was. Robinson, a Kentucky high school product, had committed to Kentucky for college but changed his mind and flipped to Nebraska. After 2 years in Lincoln, Robinson transferred home and promptly delivered the best receiving season in UK history. He caught 104 passes for 1,334 yards, and completed his career with a massive performance in UK’s Citrus Bowl win over Iowa. How good was Robinson? With everybody knowing he would be the target for UK’s passing game, he still had a historic season in blue and white.

4. Josh Paschal, DL

Paschal was the emotional center of this Kentucky program. The talented 4-star recruit learned just before his sophomore season that he had a malignant melanoma on his foot. He missed most of the 2018 season. He fought off cancer and returned to become a difference-maker for the UK defensive front, particularly in 2021, when he had 52 tackles, including and 15 for loss. Paschal was a 2nd-round pick of the Detroit Lions in the 2022 NFL Draft, and his leadership will likely carry over to the next level.

3. Lynn Bowden, everything

Bowden came to Kentucky with a reputation for big-time athleticism, and over 3 seasons in Lexington, that only grew. As a freshman, Bowden arrived on campus late, and was a kick returner and occasional receiving target. As a sophomore, he emerged as Kentucky’s top receiver, hauling in 67 catches for 745 yards. But it was his junior season in 2019 when Bowden left his mark on Kentucky football.

Still the team’s top receiver, after UK’s top 3 quarterbacks couldn’t play due to injury, Bowden switched to QB in midseason. He led the SEC in rushing in a functioning Wildcat offense, picking up 1,468 rushing yards on the season. But his best moment was a surprise passing score to win the Belk Bowl over Virginia Tech. Bowden not only could seemingly do anything, in 3 years in Lexington, he almost did do everything.

2. Benny Snell, RB

Snell was a durable, if not blazing, Ohio running back prospect whom the home-state Buckeyes ignored in recruiting. Snell began his freshman season at UK as a 3rd-string back. In the season’s 3rd game, he became the starter and immediately posted the first of his 3 consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons at UK. Snell set program records with 3,873 rushing yards and 48 rushing touchdowns. Snell was notable for his physical, churning rushing style and for the chip on his shoulder which he freely admitted. Anybody who underrated Kentucky would hear from Snell sooner or later, usually to their detriment.

1. Josh Allen, LB

In many ways, Allen is the prototype for what Stoops has done at Kentucky. A late recruiting addition, Allen was a 2-star recruit whom UK pulled away from a commitment to Monmouth.

At Kentucky, Allen went from a speedy, thin and toolsy prospect of an edge rusher to the nation’s best defensive player.

After Allen posted 7 sacks in 2016 and 2017, he decided to bypass the NFL for his senior season. That season — 88 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss, 17 sacks — vaulted UK’s defense from acceptable to elite. Allen won the Chuck Bednarik and Bronko Nagurski Awards, Kentucky won 10 games, including the Citrus Bowl, and Allen was the 7th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.