These five Wildcats could be in store for breakout seasons in 2023

A quick glance at Kentucky football’s 2023 roster shows how much the perception of a player can change over the course of one season.
A year ago, few outside the UK locker room knew what to expect from tight end Jordan Dingle, safety Jordan Lovett or linebacker D’Eryk Jackson, but each of those Wildcats ended up being an essential piece of the 2022 team. Now, each is being counted on to serve a starring role for the 2023 season.
So, who is the next Dingle, Lovett or Jackson? Here is a look at five returning Wildcats who could be in store for breakout seasons.
TE Josh Kattus
It did not take long for Kattus to turn heads a year ago despite arriving in Lexington to a crowded tight end room thanks to his physicality and blue collar attitude. As a freshman, he played in 11 games with three starts. Kattus was used primarily as a blocker but did catch seven passes for 125 yards.
Competition for snaps at tight end is still fierce with Brenden Bates, Jordan Dingle and Izayah Cummings all staking a claim to a featured role, but it will be difficult to keep Kattus off the field thanks to his diverse skill set. Kattus missed spring practice while recovering from offseason surgery, but he already has gained a fan in offensive coordinator Liam Coen since returning to the field for preseason practice.
“Man, he’s a dog,” Coen said. “... He doesn’t look like this guy that’s going to walk up and beat your tail every snap, and he just does it. He just plays with great leverage. He plays with such a good energy and tenacity that he doesn’t like to lose. He doesn’t like to lose a snap, he doesn’t like to lose a rep. He’s fun to coach.”
As a freshman, Alex Afari totaled 11 tackles in his first three games but just three in his final six.
As a freshman, Alex Afari totaled 11 tackles in his first three games but just three in his final six. Silas Walker swalker@herald-leader.com
DB Alex Afari
Like Kattus, Afari was an early target for coaches’ praise as a freshman. He burst onto the scene with six tackles and a sack in his collegiate debut, but Afari’s production slowed over the course of his freshman season. He finished the year with 21 tackles, three tackles for loss and one sack in 13 games, including three starts.
Afari can play multiple positions in the Kentucky secondary but is likely to be primarily used in what coaches call the “middle” position as a sort of hybrid nickel back and linebacker. Regardless of position, Afari looks like one of the defense’s best 11 players. Expect defensive coordinator Brad White to try to get him on the field as often as possible.
“There’s a confidence boost because there’s a comfort level,” White said. “He understands what he needs to get done. … It’s still not perfect. Everybody is going to make mistakes, but he’s obviously one we’re excited about.”
Can a player break out twice? It looked like Cummings had broken out in the second half of the 2021 season with 11 of his 14 catches that year coming in the second half, but he disappeared in 2022 with Rich Scangarello as offensive coordinator, touching the ball just once all season with a 24-yard carry on an end-around.
There may be no player on the roster in line to benefit more from the return of Coen, who was also UK’s offensive coordinator in 2021, than Cummings. The former Male High School star arrived at UK as a wide receiver but moved to tight end as a redshirt freshman in 2021. Coen found a way to showcase his hybrid skills to exploit matchups against linebackers in a way that Scangarello chose not to last season.
With Coen back and UK’s top three returning tight ends out for spring practice, Cummings has apparently seized the second chance. During Saturday’s Fan Day practice, Cummings actually spent time working with the wide receivers again. Thanks to a lack of scholarship depth there, his ability to line up at multiple positions becomes even more important for the offense.
“We saw him have success in this system a few years ago,” UK Coach Mark Stoops said. “With his speed, moving him around, we need that. With the depth at wide-out, it’s critical.”
The most experienced player on this list, Phillips opened the 2022 season as a starter at cornerback but was quickly passed on the depth chart by Ole Miss transfer Keidron Smith. Phillips eventually carved out a place for himself as the team’s primary nickel back in the second half of the 2022 season.
Snaps at cornerback are available again after the departures of Smith and NFL Draft pick Carrington Valentine. Phillips is the favorite to win one of those jobs, but the impact he made at nickel back means he is still likely to see time at multiple positions in the secondary.
How much nickel back Phillips plays will probably depend on the progress of Kentucky’s young cornerbacks, but it is clear Phillips will be an important part of the defensive game plan regardless what position he plays.
“He’s going to play both corner and nickel,” White said. “He’s another guy that’s playing with a lot of confidence right now, at both positions. Excited to see him sort of have one of those big breakout years. It’s his time now for that.”
Sophomore Deone Walker will get most of the attention on what should be a deep Kentucky defensive line, but Saunders might be the key to the group unlocking another level of performance.
“Kahlil is the ex-factor, I’ll be honest with you,” defensive line coach Anwar Stewart said. “He’s a big, long, athletic kid. Has all the ability. You watch him against Georgia last year, played unbelievable. He’s the one if you can get big with Deone and him and then you throw in one of those big noses, you’re solid.”
Saunders totaled 13 tackles, one tackle for loss and one-half sack in 11 games as a redshirt freshman last season. Coaches have long spoken of Saunders as a player capable of improving the pass rush, but he missed the last two games of last season with injury and did not participate in spring practice. Saunders was also unavailable for Saturday’s Fan Day open practice.
“The sky is the limit for him,” Stewart said. “He’s just got to keep coming. … If he can stay healthy, he’ll have a big role in our defense.”

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