Kentucky 2022 football preview: Five breakout candidates

For Kentucky football to succeed in its ever-growing preseason hype, it will have to tick a number of boxes.

Will Levis, Tayvion Robinson, DeAndre Square and more have to perform like the stars they were meant to be. Several freshmen from the highly touted signing class of 2022 are to make an immediate impact.

But playmakers must also emerge from another group. The same way Izayah Cummings, Eli Cox and JJ Weaver shone a year ago, Kentucky will need a group of returning players stepping into bigger roles to shine.

Here are five candidates from that group who look set for breakout seasons.

La'Vell Wright Media Day
Running back La’Vell Wright is competing for a bigger role as uncertainty persists over Chris Rodriguez’s status. Silas Walker [email protected]

RB La’Vell Wright

With just over two weeks until the opener, we are still awaiting any information on the status of star running back Chris Rodriguez. The latest update came from UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart over the weekend when he confirmed the UK administration was involved in deciding when or if Rodriguez, who pleaded guilty to a charge of drunk driving this summer, will play.

Kentucky has no shortage of options in the running back room to take on bigger roles if Rodriguez runs out of time, but Wright seems like the best candidate in this group to emerge as a fullback every time. The former North Hardin High School star impressed in a brief appearance last season, throwing for 118 yards and a touchdown on nine carries in four games while wearing a red shirt.

“If my name is called, I just have to go out there and produce,” Wright said. “It’s nothing too much. Every time they tell me to go, I just need to go on and put on a show.

Jordan Dingle Spring Training
Tight end Jordan Dingle (85) had two catches in four games while wearing a red shirt in the 2021 season. Silas Walker [email protected]

TE Jordan Dingle

No position on the roster has received more praise in the first two weeks of preseason training than tight end. Offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello predicted that up to five players in this room could have NFL futures.

Senior Brenden Bates is the most experienced player in the group. Cummings might be the best receiving threat. Senior Keaton Upshaw looked like a budding star two years ago before an injury saw him miss all of 2021. Rookie Josh Kattus impressed his teammates and coaches early in camp.

But Dingle should not be overlooked. He caught two passes for 54 yards in four games in a 2021 redshirt season. At 6-foot-4, 236 pounds, he also has the frame to be a factor in the running game.

“I can do anything,” tight ends coach Vince Marrow said. “He’s like a Swiss army knife.”

Junior Jeremy Flax (77) is expected to replace All-American Darian Kinnard as Kentucky’s starting right tackle. Silas Walker [email protected]

OT Jeremy Flax

A year ago, Flax seemed to have locked down the starting right tackle job after spring training, but he was relegated to the bench when Kentucky added highly touted transfer Dare Rosenthal from LSU.

Lin appeared in 11 of Kentucky’s 13 games, but struggled to earn consistent snaps as Kentucky’s offensive line rotation shortened. This spring, Flax admitted he sometimes struggled with the coaching style of former British offensive line coach Eric Wolford, who has since moved to Alabama.

The 6-foot-6, 328-pound Detroit native appears to have thrived under new offensive line coach Zach Yenser. Kentucky needs the progress from the offseason to hold, as Flax is now expected to open the season as a starter at right tackle.

“I think our tackles are pretty good,” Scangarello said on the media day. “I think they will surprise people.”

Defensive tackle Octavious Oxendine looked like an emerging star last season before a knee injury ended his season after six games. Ryan C.Hermens [email protected]

DL Octavious Oxendine

Without an injury, Oxendine likely would have already made it off any preseason breakout candidate list. He appeared in six games, with three starts, last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury.

Prior to the injury, he had 15 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss with two sacks. He was named SEC Co-Defensive Lineman of the Week for his performance in the win over LSU.

Healthy again, Oxendine weighs 37 pounds less than a year ago. With the weight drop, the 6-foot-1, 281-pound former North Hardin star has gained agility.

“You have to be smart every time you have injuries, but he looks explosive,” defensive coordinator Brad White said. “Yes, his weight is down, but he looks stronger. He’s looser than he’s ever been in the past. He’s a guy who’s brimming with confidence. We can move him in many different places.

Jalen Geiger Media Day
Safety Jalen Geiger is set to replace team captain Yusuf Corker as the starter in Kentucky’s football secondary. Silas Walker [email protected]

S Jalen Geiger

Replacing three-year-old starter Yusuf Corker in the secondary is a big challenge for the Kentucky defense, but Geiger brings plenty of experience to the starting safety position alongside super senior Tyrell Ajian.

Geiger appeared in 20 games over three seasons for Kentucky with two starts. A year ago, he had 18 tackles, one tackle for loss and one interception in 12 games. He returned his interception 31 yards for a touchdown in the win over Vanderbilt.

The native of Columbia, South Carolina has already proven his valuable presence in the locker room as he was nominated this summer for the AFCA Good Works team and the Wuerffel Trophy, two accolades that recognize community service work. Now he is focused on replacing some of Corker’s leadership in the secondary.

“I think he’s brimming with confidence, which is good,” White said of Geiger during spring training. “He needed it. He begins to find his voice. It’s a big challenge for him: to be loud. For three years, Yusuf has been something of the ultimate verbal communicator in the back half, and now we have to find some kind of new spokesperson.

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