The 2023 college football season has finally arrived. At high noon on Saturday, toe will meet leather at Kroger Field as Kentucky hosts Ball State for some Week 1 MACtion in Lexington. Mark Stoops and his 11th Kentucky team are chomping at the bit to get rolling.
“I don’t have much to say. You guys have listened to me quite a bit here through summer camp. Not much has changed,” Mark Stoops told reporters on Thursday. “I think you all know that myself, our staff, and our team is ready to go play a game.”
Kentucky is a huge 25.5 point favorite out in the desert and in betting apps across the country. The expectation is that the Wildcats will eventually run away from Mike Neu’s Cardinals on Saturday. However, the on-paper suggestions must be translated to the field.
These three Kentucky players are who could determine how good of a Week 1 the Wildcats will have when football time in the Bluegrass officially arrives.
Devin Leary makes a first impression
First impressions can take you a long way. NC State transfer Devin Leary has received a ton of behind-the-scenes buzz throughout the offseason. Now we get to see what Kentucky has at quarterback in a live game setting.
The super senior enters Saturday’s contest with 6,807 career passing yards and 62 passing touchdowns. However, there is a prevailing thought that the former four-star recruit out of New Jersey could be primed for his best collegiate season thanks to the partnership with offensive coordinator Liam Coen and the star power Kentucky has at wide receiver.
Facing a rebuilding Ball State secondary, there appears to be a great opportunity for Leary and this Kentucky passing game to get off to a very fast start. If the Wildcats can create some explosive early against this defense from the MAC West that could lead to blowout city.
Maxwell Hairston’s first career start
Kentucky is getting young at cornerback in 2023 after losing a pair of multi-year starters off last year’s roster. At the field cornerback position, Maxwell Hairston will receive his first career start on Saturday.
The former three-star recruiting win out of the Detroit suburbs took a redshirt season in 2021 before playing only 24 defensive snaps for Kentucky last season. However, the redshirt sophomore quickly claimed a starting spot during spring camp and never relinquished the job despite Kentucky adding a pair of cornerback transfers in the offseason.
Hairston will be put to the test by Ball State’s pass-heavy attack.
The Cardinals ranked inside the top 30 in pass play percentage (54.8%) last season, and that could stay the same with Texas State transfer Layne Hatcher joining the roster. The super senior has over 10,000 career passing yards and will likely be asked to make a lot of plays from the pocket.
Expect Hairston to receive a high volume of action in both the pass and run game. Kentucky’s young cornerback will be challenged and we’ll quickly find out what kind of shape the Wildcats are in at cornerback.
Right tackle battle
Earlier this week, we learned that Jeremy Flax will open the season as Kentucky’s starter at right tackle for the second season in a row. However, this is a position battle that is far from over. USC transfer Courtland Ford will also receive snaps with the ones.
This position battle could last the first few weeks and is something we will all be watching closely in September. Pass protection is the top goal as Kentucky must protect the asset at quarterback, but this is also an offensive line that must make some strides in the run game.
With four of the five positions settled, right tackle will be watched closely. We will have a better understanding of where things stand on the line after watching 60 minutes of football. Ball State has a good defensive front that could look to challenge this unknown spot. If the offensive line struggles, right tackle will be the first spot to face criticism.
Is Kentucky improved here? We’ll find out soon.