Transfer portal class boosts reasons for optimism for Kentucky at SEC Media Days

UPDATED JULY 19, 2023 2:53 PM
NASHVILLE
When Mark Stoops arrived at SEC Media Days as a first-year Kentucky coach a decade ago, he knew it would take years to build a roster that could even hold its own in college football’s best conference.
The more than 10 years of high school recruiting work done by Stoops and his staff has elevated Kentucky to the point it can reach seven consecutive bowl games and even win 10 games twice in a four-year period. But for all Stoops’ recruiting success, even the Wildcats’ best high school classes have generally been ranked in the bottom half of the SEC.
So as Stoops and company look to take the step from competitive SEC program to legitimate championship contender, the ability to add instant impact veterans in the transfer portal can be a game changer.
“It’s different,” Stoops said Wednesday as he kicked off UK’s annual appearance at SEC Media Days. “Last year, most of us coaches, I think, were like, ‘What in the world is going on? This is a little bit of chaos.’ Now, it’s like it is what it is. You better dive into it and adjust and adapt.
“I feel like we’ve done very well in the portal.”
The 2023 roster released in Kentucky’s media guide this week includes 16 players transferring from four-year colleges. At least 14 of those transfers are expected to be on scholarship this year. 247Sports ranks Kentucky’s transfer class 13th nationally.
The transfer class is led by former North Carolina State quarterback Devin Leary.
Leary’s impact as the replacement for Tennessee Titans second-round pick Will Levis, was evident in spring practice, but those sessions also made it clear there were other holes to fill on the 2023 roster.
Thanks to the transfer portal, Stoops was able to address most of those concerns in the spring window, adding players at offensive line, inside linebacker, kicker, running back and long snapper.
“I think the obvious is the offensive line and making sure we shored up that and picked up some pieces that we needed,” Stoops said. “We picked up five in the portal on that — and we needed that.”
UK welcomed former Northern Illinois left tackle Marques Cox and former Alabama guard Tanner Bowles to campus for spring practice. In May, the Wildcats signed Southern California tackle Courtland Ford, Ohio State guard Ben Christman and West Virginia guard Dylan Ray.
Kentucky ranked 126th of 131 teams nationally in sacks allowed last season. Cox has already locked down the starting left tackle job. Ford is expected to compete with returning starter Jeremy Flax for the No. 1 right tackle job. Bowles and Christman should add needed depth at the interior positions.
Silas Walker swalker@herald-leader.com
Those additions combined with the return of offensive coordinator Liam Coen to Lexington offer hope for a quick turnaround on the offensive line.
Special teams was another consistent source of headaches for Stoops last season. He began the process of rebuilding that unit by hiring special teams coordinator Jay Boulware in December.
In the spring transfer window, Stoops added Georgia Southern kicker Alex Raynor and Temple long snapper Ron Gaines as scholarship players. Former Fordham kickoff specialist Michael Bernard also joined the team this summer.
“We had to fix some areas,” Stoops said. “Offensive line is obviously one of them, and special teams obviously needed to improve.”
Adding 16 transfers to a roster might increase the chances of a quick fix for Kentucky, but it brings its own challenges in meshing a locker room.
During spring practice Stoops highlighted the need for more player leadership. Senior offensive guard Eli Cox attributed some of those concerns to the need to teach the incoming transfers the identity that has made Kentucky successful under Stoops.
“They’re coming from really good programs that all do things differently,” Cox said Wednesday. “Some things they do really well. It’s just the things we do at Kentucky is what we’re trying to instill in all the team.”
How successful Kentucky is integrating those transfers in the locker room and on the field will say much about the Wildcats’ success in 2023.
With players able to transfer once without sitting out a season, Kentucky now annually faces the risk of losing its best players to traditional powers — three Wildcats transferred to other SEC programs this offseason — but it’s clear Stoops has an advantage now in building a roster he did not at his first SEC Media Days.
“Everybody we bring in is somebody Coach feels like can play with us,” senior defensive lineman Octavious Oxendine said. “... If he feels like they can play with us, we always bring them in with open arms. If you make the team better, you make us all better.”

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