Meet the new kickers, punters and snappers who could fix UK’s special teams woes

UPDATED JULY 26, 2023 11:01 AM
Kentucky football’s work in the transfer portal was so extensive this offseason that head coach Mark Stoops could be forgiven for needing a few seconds to remember all the positions where his staff added new players.
But when asked about the latest transfer additions at SEC Media Days, Stoops eventually got around to one of the most important portions of his roster makeover.
“Two kickers, a snapper and a punter,” Stoops said. “We had to fix some areas. … Special teams obviously needed to improve.”
Kentucky’s special teams makeover began with the hire of new coordinator Jay Boulware in December. During spring practice, the increased emphasis on special teams was apparent based on the intensity in the portions of two practices open to reporters focused on those areas.
But since he arrived after the bulk of the 2023 high school recruiting work was finished, Boulware did not have a chance to put his stamp on the roster until the spring transfer portal window.
Since then, Kentucky has added three transfers — two of which will be on scholarship this fall — and four freshmen to the specialist group. Kicker Chance Poore, punter Wilson Berry and long snapper Clay Perry will have the chance to retain the No. 1 spots on the depth chart they occupied in spring practice — and redshirt freshman scholarship kicker Jackson Smith will have a chance to push for snaps — but the addition of more competition at those spots could help avoid the disaster scenario of a year ago when Stoops had little option but to continue to use the same specialists even after repeated struggles.
“Needed to be more consistent, just with everything, whether it be snap and hold and punting, kicking, whatever,” Stoops said. “The routine, we need to be routine, and that didn’t always happen a year ago.”
Mark Stoops hired former Oklahoma assistant Jay Boulware as Kentucky football’s new special teams coordinator in December.
Mark Stoops hired former Oklahoma assistant Jay Boulware as Kentucky football’s new special teams coordinator in December. Ryan C. Hermens rhermens@herald-leader.com
Here is a closer look at the special teams additions who will be competing for featured roles in preseason camp.
TRANSFERS
LS RON GAINES
Kentucky’s biggest special teams issue a year ago was inconsistency in snapping. Coaches tried two different players at the position, but the problems plagued both Cade DeGraw and Perry. Perry is back for the 2023 season, but he will face competition from Temple transfer Ron Gaines, who UK added as a scholarship player this summer.
Whether Gaines is an upgrade over the 2022 snappers remains to be seen. He served as the Owls’ primary snapper on punts for most of three seasons and the snapper for field goals and extra points for one season but did not appear in a game in 2022. Temple listed him as the backup snapper throughout the season behind an incoming transfer from TCU.
Gaines lost almost 50 pounds before the 2019 and 2020 seasons. He is a graduate of Simeon Academy in Chicago, which is more famous for its basketball program with alumni including Derrick Rose and Jabari Parker.
K Alex Raynor
Poore has been a net positive as Kentucky’s kickoff specialist for most of his UK career but has failed to secure the No. 1 spot for extra points and field goals. Poore replaced the graduated Matt Ruffolo as UK’s primary place-kicker in spring practice, but Stoops made it clear in his final spring news conference more consistency was still needed from Poore, who has always drawn strong reviews for his leg strength.
If Poore fails to find that consistency again, Raynor should provide ample competition. In three years at Georgia Southern, he converted 45 of 59 field goals (76.3%) and 110 of 113 extra points (97.3%). His best season came in 2022 when he converted 18 of 20 field goals and 49 of 50 extra points. His career long field goal is 47 yards.
Raynor was an honorable mention All-Sun Belt selection last season when he led the league in total points scored (103). Raynor will be on athletic scholarship at Kentucky.
K MICHAEL BERNARD
Fordham transfer Michael Bernard could provide more competition for Poore, but he is far less of a known commodity than Raynor.
Bernard served as Fordham’s kickoff specialist the last two seasons, recording touchbacks on 21.1% of his kickoffs. Since Poore recorded touchbacks on 72.1% of his kickoffs last season, his job there appears safe, but Bernard at least presents another experienced option in the event of injury or struggles from Poore.
In four years at Fordham, Bernard did not attempt a field goal or extra point, but he showed off impressive leg strength in several videos posted to Twitter prior to his February commitment, including one where he converted a field goal off a tee from 70 yards.
HIGH SCHOOL RECRUITS
K MAX DEGRAFF
Lexington Catholic graduate Max DeGraff has the unusual distinction of being listed as a wide receiver and kicker on UK’s roster for his freshman season. As a senior at Lexington Catholic, DeGraff caught 64 passes for 1,425 yards and 21 touchdowns. He converted 58 of 59 extra points and four of six field goal attempts. In an August win over Henry Clay, DeGraff scored five touchdowns and converted two field goals. He was named to the Herald-Leader’s All-City Team. Since UK’s kickers generally practice away from the rest of the team in non-special teams portions of practice, it will be interesting to see how DeGraff splits his time moving forward.
LS WALKER HIMEBAUCH
The fact that Gaines will be on scholarship for Kentucky probably gives him the early edge in the long snapper battle, but snapper is a position where even a freshman walk-on could play immediately if he proves capable. Colorado native Walker Himebauch was ranked as the No. 12 long snapper in the high school class of 2023 by the Kohl’s Kicking Camp. Himebauch’s father, Jonathan, played at USC and currently coaches in the XFL.
P HEATH JEHU
Competition for Berry at punter comes in the form of freshman Heath Jehu, a Birmingham, Alabama, native who reported a scholarship offer from West Alabama before committing to Kentucky in May as a walk-on. Jehu won an Alabama high school state championship in soccer.
K JACKSON MOORE
The final freshman specialist on UK’s roster is North Carolina native Jackson Moore, a four-star kicker prospect according to the Kohl’s kicker rankings. Moore was named the third-team kicker on the Charlotte Observer’s area all-star team as a senior. In a January interview with CatsIllustrated.com, Moore said Boulware had offered him a preferred walk-on spot at Kentucky due to his consistency from inside 50 yards.

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