Kentucky coach Mark Stoops recently called the early portion of the team’s TaxSlayer Bowl practices a “developmental period” or “another spring” for his younger players.
With nine starters on both offense and defense and more than 80 percent of its two-deep returning for 2017, starting spots are going to be hard to come by, but key senior leaders will need to be replaced. One is center Jon Toth, who will be starting his 48th consecutive game Saturday against Georgia Tech. Others needing to be replaced include wide receiver Ryan Timmons, defensive end Courtney Miggins, free safety Marcus McWilson and nickelback Blake McCain.
With that, we take a look at underclassmen who will be expected to step up and fill key roles next season.
RB A.J. Rose (running back)
Yes, another running back on a team already rich in running backs. Stoops, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot have been raving about the true freshman, who is redshirting this season. As a member of the scout team, Rose played the roles of Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson and Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas.
“He is versatile,” Gran said about Rose, who played quarterback for his high school team in Ohio. “One of the things we really talked to him about was learning our offense and making sure he really honed in on that. I can already tell he is light years away from where he was in the fall. He’s really locking in. He’s got some talent.”
OTs Landon Young and Luke Fortner
Young was the first consensus five-star ranked lineman to sign with UK in the Stoops era. He started three games at left tackle and will push for a starting spot next season even though both tackle spots will have seniors leading the way. Fortner is a 6-foot-6, 305-pounder with enough speed to get around on pulls while possessing sufficient power in man-on-man blocking.
TE Justin Rigg
Gran loves multiple-tight end sets and Rigg (6-6, 250) is oozing with potential. He sat out this season with a kidney laceration.
C Jervontius Stallings
Though he’s only played in three games, Stallings has the size (6-3, 320) and skill level necessary to replace Toth at center.
What about the defense?
“There’s a group of them,” Eliot said. “Kordell Looney (defensive tackle) sticks out to me. He did some good things. Jamar Watson (linebacker) and Davonte Robinson (cornerback) — a lot of those young guys stand out to me.”
Looney is a 6-3, 285-pounder who didn’t start playing football until his junior year of high school, giving him lots of upside. Watson (6-3, 235) and Robinson (6-2, 185) have the necessary size and athleticism.
(You can follow Jimmy Schofield on Twitter @JimmySchofield1)
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