Five breakout candidates who can help Kentucky football challenge for SEC East title

·5 min read

For Kentucky football to make good on its ever-growing preseason hype, it will need to check a number of boxes.

Will Levis, Tayvion Robinson, DeAndre Square and others need to play like the stars they are projected to be. Multiple freshmen from the highly touted 2022 signing class need to make an immediate impact.

But playmakers have to emerge from another group, as well. In the same way Izayah Cummings, Eli Cox and J.J. Weaver shined a year ago, Kentucky will need a group of returning players stepping in to larger roles to shine.

Here are five candidates from that group who look poised for breakout seasons.

Running back La’Vell Wright is competing for a larger role as uncertainty lingers about Chris Rodriguez’s status.
Running back La’Vell Wright is competing for a larger role as uncertainty lingers about Chris Rodriguez’s status.

RB La’Vell Wright

With just more than two weeks left until the opener, we still are awaiting word on the status of star running back Chris Rodriguez. The latest update came from UK Director of Athletics Mitch Barnhart over the weekend when he confirmed UK’s administration is involved in the decision about when or if Rodriguez, who pleaded guilty to a DUI charge this summer, will play.

Kentucky has no shortage of options in the running back room to take on larger roles if Rodriguez misses time, but Wright looks like the best candidate in that group to emerge as an every down back. The former North Hardin High School star impressed in a brief cameo last season, totaling 118 yards and one touchdown on nine carries in four games while redshirting.

“If my name is called, I’ve just got to go out there and produce,” Wright said. “It’s nothing too much to it. Whenever they tell me to go out there, I just need to go on and put on a show.”

Tight end Jordan Dingle (85) totaled two catches in four games while redshirting in the 2021 season.
Tight end Jordan Dingle (85) totaled two catches in four games while redshirting in the 2021 season.

TE Jordan Dingle

No position on the roster has received more praise through the first two weeks of preseason practice than tight end. Offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello has predicted as many as five players in that room could have NFL futures.

Senior Brenden Bates is the most experienced player in the group. Cummings might be the best receiving threat. Senior Keaton Upshaw looked like a budding star two years ago before an injury caused him to miss all of 2021. Freshman Josh Kattus has impressed teammates and coaches early in camp.

But Dingle should not be overlooked. He caught two passes for 54 yards in four games during a redshirt season in 2021. At 6-foot-4, 236 pounds, he has the frame to be a factor in the run game as well.

“Can do it all,” tight ends coach Vince Marrow said. “He’s like a Swiss Army knife.”

Junior Jeremy Flax (77) is projected to replace All-American Darian Kinnard as Kentucky’s starting right tackle.
Junior Jeremy Flax (77) is projected to replace All-American Darian Kinnard as Kentucky’s starting right tackle.

OT Jeremy Flax

A year ago, Flax appeared to have locked down the starting right tackle job after spring practice, but he was relegated to the bench when Kentucky added highly touted transfer Dare Rosenthal from LSU.

Flax appeared in 11 of 13 games for Kentucky but struggled to earn consistent snaps as Kentucky’s offensive line rotation shortened. This spring, Flax acknowledged he struggled at times with the coaching style of former UK offensive line coach Eric Wolford, who has since moved to Alabama.

The 6-foot-6, 328-pound Detroit native appears to have thrived under the leadership of new offensive line coach Zach Yenser. Kentucky needs the offseason progress to stick as Flax is now projected to open the season as the starter at right tackle.

“I think our tackles are pretty good,” Scangarello said on media day. “I think they are going to surprise people.”

Defensive tackle Octavious Oxendine looked like an emerging star last season before a knee injury ended his season after six games.
Defensive tackle Octavious Oxendine looked like an emerging star last season before a knee injury ended his season after six games.

DL Octavious Oxendine

If not for an injury, Oxendine likely already would have performed his way off of any preseason breakout candidates list. He appeared in six games, with three starts, last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury.

Before the injury, he totaled 15 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss with two sacks. He was named SEC Co-Defensive Lineman of the Week for his performance in the win over LSU.

Now healthy again, Oxendine is listed at 37 pounds lighter than a year ago. With the drop in weight, the 6-foot-1, 281-pound former North Hardin star has added agility.

“You’ve got to be smart whenever you have injuries, but he looks explosive,” defensive coordinator Brad White said. “Yes, his weight is down, but looks stronger. He’s looser than he’s ever been in the past. He’s a guy that’s brimming with confidence. We can move him in a lot of different places.”

Safety Jalen Geiger is projected to replace team captain Yusuf Corker as a starter in the Kentucky football secondary.
Safety Jalen Geiger is projected to replace team captain Yusuf Corker as a starter in the Kentucky football secondary.

S Jalen Geiger

Replacing three-year starter Yusuf Corker in the secondary is a significant challenge for Kentucky’s defense, but Geiger brings plenty of experience to the starting safety spot alongside super senior Tyrell Ajian.

Geiger has appeared in 20 games across three seasons for Kentucky with two starts. A year ago, he totaled 18 tackles, one tackle for loss and one interception in 12 games. He returned his interception 31 yards for a touchdown in the win over Vanderbilt.

The Columbia, South Carolina, native has already proven himself a valuable presence in the locker room as he was this summer nominated for the AFCA Good Works Team and Wuerffel Trophy, two honors that recognized community service work. Now, he is focused on replacing some of Corker’s leadership in the secondary.

“I think he’s sort of brimming with confidence, which is good,” White said of Geiger during spring practice. “He needed to. He’s starting to find his voice. That’s a big challenge for him: Be loud. Yusuf for three years was sort of the ultimate verbal communicator in the back half, and now we have to find sort of a new mouthpiece.”

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