Kentucky is 3-0 and a strong favorite to enter October with a 4-0 mark and a Top 10 finish.
Granted, a 10-win season would be the 3rd in 5 years for head coach Mark Stoops, but the 2022 season is off to a good start, even for a growing program.
Here are 6 pleasant surprises that helped the 8th-ranked Wildcats reach their current position:
1. Dane Key, wide receiver
The surprise isn’t that Key played – that was well understood when he was listed as a true freshman in the Game 1 depth chart. The surprise isn’t even that there’s contributed.
It was expected.
What we may not have expected was his consistency and immediate impact, with 13 receptions for 226 yards and 3 touchdowns. With a TD catch in each of the UK’s first 3 games, Key has already tied the Wildcats’ first year by receiving the TD season mark – in September.
His ability to succeed on a variety of different roads and in different situations highlights just how exceptional Key has been. Deep ball? No problem. Short pass in the middle? He can do it. The red zone is fading? The key is like an automatic pass interference game.
It’s not that he plays. It’s not that he’s good. It’s how good he is so quickly that was the surprise with Key.
2. Chauncey Magwood, wide receiver
Magwood finished a season where he made exactly 1 catch and was a bit underdog on the depth chart. But hidden behind Key, freshman Barion Brown, Tayvion Robinson and a group of tight ends, Georgia’s 6-footer second is making a name for himself.
Whether it’s a touchdown in the red zone in Game 1 or a pair of catches for 47 yards in The Swamp, Magwood is opening up and making plays. It’s not hard to imagine him ascending the depth chart.
3. Barion Brown, wide receiver
Like Key, Brown was expected to contribute. But a 100-yard kick return for a score in Week 1? Well, it was Kentucky‘s first since 2009.
Stoops has enjoyed using walk-in receivers in the kick return role, and Brown’s elusiveness is a wild card there. Brown 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 comes out of “reduce playbook, give nothing” mode after the Northern Illinois game on Saturday.
4. Alex Afari, defensive back
A highly touted rookie from Cincinnati, rank Afari along with Key and Brown as a guy whose good game isn’t surprising but whose quick rise to stand out might be.
Afari is tied for 5th on the team in tackles and his 2.5 tackles for the loss are just behind Jordan Wright. Afari’s aggression and ability to find the football make him a defensive magnet.
Kentucky’s secondary was damaged a bit, and that only gave Afari more opportunities to shine.
5. Carrington Valentine, cornerback
A year ago, Kentucky’s high school was burned down by Mississippi State and Tennessee, and seemed to be held down with tape and the luck of not playing against many passing teams. Probably the most improved player on the Wildcats, Valentine has gone from someone who resists targeted attacks to a player he learns to leave alone.
In 3 games, Valentin broke 6 passes and made one interception. He’s already surpassed his productivity from a year ago and is actually tied for the national lead in broken passes.
Granted, those same Bulldogs and Volunteers are waiting, but Valentine looks like a different player.
6. Deone Walker, defensive lineman
Another freshman, another player who surprised by standing out right away.
Walker, a huge 4-star rookie from Michigan, may have been Britain’s best player on the defensive line. With 9 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss, he gives the Wildcats full-time production in minutes part-time.
While the SEC’s offensive lines will be a big test, Walker’s speed at his height is nothing short of shocking.
It’s also shocking that Walker was an outstanding contributor to the SEC from day one.