What to know about four key position battles in Kentucky football preseason camp

When Kentucky football opens preseason practice Wednesday, Mark Stoops and his staff will have the luxury of already being able to pencil in most of the two-deep depth chart.
Training camp always offers the opportunity for under-the-radar players to emerge, proving summer strides can translate into on-field production, but this is no longer a program where every position is truly open for competition.
For the second consecutive season and fourth time in five years, Kentucky opens preseason practice with a clear No. 1 quarterback. The top three wide receivers are back. Spring practice helped the Wildcats settle four of the five offensive line spots.
On defense, at least five starting jobs are already filled. There is some uncertainty at positions like defensive line, tight end and running back, but who runs on the field first at those positions matters less because heavy rotation should be used at each.
Still, there are at least a few important position battles to be discovered in the coming weeks. Here is a look at four preseason position battles that could say much about Kentucky’s 2023 outlook.
The top contenders: Jeremy Flax (6-6, 325, Sr.), Courtland Ford (6-6, 315, Jr.)
Other options: Ben Christman (6-6, 321, So.), Nik Hall (6-6, 314, RFr.), Dylan Ray (6-6, 305, So.), Malachi Wood (6-8, 283, Fr.)
Kentucky enters fall camp with starters set at left tackle (Marques Cox), left guard (Kenneth Horsey), center (Jager Burton) and right guard (Eli Cox), but coaches made no secret of the need for continued improvement at right tackle, despite the return of starter Jeremy Flax. The staff found the competition for Flax it was looking for in the spring transfer portal window with a commitment from former Southern California tackle Courtland Ford.
Ford, who started 12 games across three seasons at USC, is probably the favorite to start the opener against Ball State, but Flax remains an important player for the rotation even if he loses his starting job. There is not much experience among the “other options” listed here. Ben Christman (Ohio State) and Dylan Ray (West Virginia) were both viewed primarily as guards in the transfer portal but will probably crosstrain at tackle too. Hall could be a wildcard if he bounces back from an injury that caused him to miss spring practice.
Senior Jeremy Flax started started 12 of 13 games at right tackle last season but faces competition from USC transfer Courtland Ford to retain his starting job.
Senior Jeremy Flax started started 12 of 13 games at right tackle last season but faces competition from USC transfer Courtland Ford to retain his starting job. Silas Walker swalker@herald-leader.com
The top contenders: Jantzen Dunn (6-0, 182, So.), Maxwell Hairston (6-1, 181, So.), JQ Hardaway (6-3, 194, So.), Andru Phillips (6-0, 187, Jr.), Jordan Robinson (6-4, 208, So.)
Other options: Nasir Addison (6-0, 187, Fr.), Elijah Reed (6-3, 185, RFr.), Avery Stuart (6-2, 186, Fr.)
Kentucky must replace both its starting cornerbacks. Andru Phillips left spring practice as the top option at the position, but considering his strong play as the Wildcats’ top nickel back in the second half of last season, there is an argument he might be more valuable in the slot. How much Phillips plays nickel back will probably depend on the summer progress of three former transfers at cornerback.
Former four-star recruits JQ Hardaway (Cincinnati) and Jantzen Dunn (Ohio State) participated in spring practice, where they competed with returners Maxwell Hairston and Jordan Robinson for spots in the rotation. Hairston totaled two tackles in 12 games last season. Robinson redshirted in 2022 after transferring from Division II Livingstone.
“We’ll have a lot of opportunities to see their ability,” Stoops said of the cornerback competition at SEC Media Days. “Experience does matter sometimes, but also talent does. So we’re going to make sure we’ve got guys out there who can cover. … I think there’s a lot to work with there and I like the nucleus of the group.”
The most likely scenario remains enough players in the group of Phillips, Hardaway, Dunn, Hairston and Robinson emerge to form a strong rotation, but the longer the competition goes into preseason camp the more likely one of the freshmen can stake a claim to a featured role.
The top contenders: Chance Poore (6-3, 213, SSr.), Alex Raynor (6-0, 178, Sr.)
Other options: Michael Bernard (6-3, 205, Sr.), Max DeGraff (5-11, 154, Fr.), Jackson Moore (5-10, 156, Fr.), Jackson Smith (5-11, 204, RFr.)
When kickoff specialist Chance Poore elected to return to UK for the extra season of eligibility granted all players in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he became the favorite to replace Matt Ruffolo as the Wildcats’ kicker on field goals and extra points, but Stoops made it clear on the final day of spring practice more work was needed from Poore to secure that job.
“He’s been more consistent,” Stoops said. “We’re working on timing and working on getting quicker, getting the ball up. There’s been days where he’s been very good, and there’s been other days where the inconsistency pops up.”
Poore is 8-for-14 on field goals and 32-for-34 on extra points across five seasons at Kentucky, but he has not attempted a field goal since the 2020 season. Despite being recruited as a scholarship kicker to UK, he was unable to beat Ruffalo, a walk-on, for the No. 1 job.
Competition for Poore arrived this summer in the form of Georgia Southern transfer Alex Raynor, who has converted 45 of 59 field goals (76.3%) and 110 of 113 extra points (97.3%) in his college career. Raynor’s career long is 47 yards, so Poore might still be needed for 50-plus-yard attempts if Raynor wins the job, but Kentucky will probably take that trade for a consistent kicker from close range.
Ruffolo proved Kentucky coaches are not above awarding specialist jobs to walk-ons over scholarship players, so the group of walk-ons in the “other options” category cannot be completely dismissed. Redshirt freshman Jackson Smith is the only scholarship player in that group, but Poore left spring practice with a clear edge over him.
The top contenders: Kaiya Sheron (6-3, 210, So.), Destin Wade (6-3, 223, RFr.)
Other options: Shane Hamm (5-11, 209, So.), Deuce Hogan (6-4, 217, Jr.)
While Kentucky enters preseason practice with North Carolina State transfer Devin Leary locked in as the starting quarterback, the competition for who will back up Leary is ongoing and could turn out to be essential to the Wildcats’ 2023 prospects.
At N.C. State, Leary had two seasons ended early due to injury, including a year ago when a torn pectoral muscle ended his 2022 season after six games. Leary is healthy now, but is a much smaller quarterback than former starter Will Levis and is unlikely to hold up well if the offensive line does not protect him better than it did Levis a year ago.
Both Sheron and Wade started one game for Kentucky in 2022 while Levis was unavailable to middling results. Sheron took most of the second-team reps during the two spring practices open to reporters, but offensive coordinator Liam Coen said that pecking order was primarily due to Sheron being more familiar with Coen’s offense since he was on the roster when Coen was coordinator in 2021. Wade had the best day of the backups in UK’s open spring scrimmage and appeared to be making a run at the backup job when spring practice ended.
“The backup quarterback, different than a lot of positions,” Coen said. “You need one. You need one to show up that the players trust, the coaches trust can go in and there’s not a big of a drop-off as someone might think.”
Hogan, a former Iowa transfer, actually opened 2022 as Levis’ top backup but was eventually passed by Sheron and Wade. Hogan has the strongest arm of any of the quarterbacks, so there is still hope for him developing into a useful backup. Hamm, a walk-on transfer from Dayton, should provide additional practice depth.

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