Constructing a college football depth chart is work of art. Establishing talent at all spots on the field can be accomplished through recruiting and player development. However, today’s game has a new influencer with the transfer portal potentially altering a team’s trajectory with strategic and specific additions. For example, Wan’Dale Robinson is a plug and play receiver who immediately improves the Wildcat offense.
Most all things about the Kentucky offense is new. It’s got a fresh leader in Liam Coen. UK will have a starting quarterback on opening day that’s not named Terry Wilson for the first time since 2017. But, there will also be several familiar names when the Cats take the field against Louisiana Monroe.
For the purposes of this post we will focus on production, not projection. There are three positions that have the most veteran and demonstrated depth. They are tight end, running back, and offensive guard. Let’s dig in shall we?
PFF rated Chris Rodriguez Jr. as nation’s best returning running back after he posted a 92.4 season grade in 2020. PFF also named Rodriguez as a 2nd Team All American to go along with multiple other outlets listing the junior as an All SEC performer. Rodriguez will add the outside zone and additional receiving opportunities in Liam Coen’s NFL-like offense. He led the SEC in 2020 after averaging 6.6-yards per carry and finished the season as the league’s 5th ranked rusher with an average of 87.22 yards per game. Rodriguez is a dynamic playmaker that could see a drastic rise in his Draft stock with another season in Lexington.
Kavosiey Smoke’s freshman season has been his most productive as a Wildcat. Smoke ran for 616 yards and scored 6 touchdowns in 2019. He racked up 229 yards a year ago to go along with five receptions for 25 yards. Smoke is a shifty runner with breakaway speed that is surprisingly powerful.
The Rodriguez-Smoke combination brings a veteran and accomplished one-two punch for the Kentucky run game. Rodriguez is the power back of the two but possesses top-end speed. Smoke is a slasher that will benefit from UK’s outside zone scheme as well as being a target out of the backfield in the pass game. Running back goals include being a 3-down back. UK is in great shape at this position going into 2021.
Luke Fortner decided to return to Kentucky for an additional year of eligibility. Fortner has been a leader and consistent figure on the Big Blue Wall for many seasons. His decision changed the outlook for the 2021 offensive line. Fortner has played in 42 career games including 23 consecutive starts at guard. He registered a season grade of 82.9% a year ago after recording 26 knockdown blocks and 146 blocks at the point of attack.
Kenneth Horsey started 8 games in 2020. The Sanford, Florida native was one of three winners of the 2020 Mayo Clinic Comeback Player of the Year Award after having open-heart surgery in 2018 and returning to start on the offensive line for Kentucky. He’s joined by Austin Dotson at guard. The former Belfry Pirate started four games in 2020 and played in all eleven contests. His development in the latter portion of last season was a significant expansion for the Wildcat offensive front.
Quintin Wilson is slated to be the Wildcat’s starting center in 2021. But, the 6’1, 294-pound junior played meaningful snaps at guard last season. Fortner, Horsey, Austin, and Wilson combine for 25 starts and have played a ton of important reps. Normally, an offensive line requires two starting guards and a swing player that can fill in if necessary.
Similar to Luke Fortner, Justin Rigg decided to return for an additional year at Kentucky. Rigg has played in 50 games and started 23. He’s registered 30 receptions during his career and is one of, if not the best, in-line blocking tight end in the Southeastern Conference. Coen’s new scheme will feature the TE position more so than in the past. Rigg’s return deepens an already talented tight end room.
Keaton Upshaw is the leader in the clubhouse when discussing Wildcats that could become a breakout player in the SEC. The 6’6, 250-pound junior is ultra-talented and brings a diverse skill set to the position. He’s played in 24 games with six starts. Upshaw has 23 receptions to go along with four touchdowns during his stay in Lexington. The junior will likely be the tight end that can be flexed or utilized as a wide receiver in the red-zone.
Brenden Bates’ stat sheet won’t jump off the pages. However, Vince Marrow and others have praised the 6’4, 250-pounder’s ability to block along the line of scrimmage. Bates has played in 21 games and is a player that could also see a breakthrough in the passing game. It appears that Coen has a tendency to utilize multiple TE formations. Kentucky’s depth at the position could prove to be a vital personnel strength in 2021.
What Does All This Mean?
Remember, this post is about proven entities with on-field production. There are several players that could have been added in this post. Many have flashed, but don’t have sustained production mainly due to limited opportunities. Others are underclassmen that have yet to play a snap in a college football game. Projection is fun and is a media tool used to generate excitement and clicks. But, the players listed in this post are proven contributors.