The most important month of the 2024 Kentucky football season is in December 2023. Welcome to roster building season at the Joe Craft Football Training Facility.
“Roster management is the number one priority right now,” Mark Stoops said on Monday night’s call-in show.
“I met all day, literally all day today, with players and people coming in and coaches. So it was an extremely busy day, but very productive, very positive, very good meetings with the players. I’m extremely encouraged.”
How exactly does it all work? Why is it such a big deal? Which areas of the roster must the Wildcats address? Let’s take a closer look.
Why Roster Management is so Important in the Transfer Portal era
The roster management dynamics have changed following the addition of the transfer portal. “Recruiting will be the lifeblood of our program,” was a phrase in every head coach’s introductory press conference.
That still remains true, for the most part. The foundation of a program must be recruited and developed through the high school ranks. Problems with the 2023 Kentucky football team can be traced back to misses in recruiting.
Kentucky ranked No. 11 in pass defense in the SEC. The secondary was primarily comprised of former mid three-star recruits. The Kentucky offense was inefficient. Stuck behind the chains, they converted only 38.1% of their third downs this year, ranked No. 8 in the SEC. A big part of that is because the upperclassmen from the 2019 and 2020 recruiting classes only produced one offensive starter.
The transfer portal allows programs to fill holes in recruiting misses. That’s most evident at the quarterback position where Kentucky has not deployed a full-time starter it recruited from the high school ranks since Patrick Towles. With Cutter Boley and Stone Saunders en route, that is changing, but in the meantime Kentucky must continue to apply a bandage via the portal. This year Devin Leary wasn’t good enough, completing only 54.2% of his passes against SEC competition.
Last year’s roster management period appeared to address issues on the depth chart, but the results did not follow. A better Dec. 2023 can improve the outlook of the 2024 season.
What Coaches Do During Roster Management Season
Mark Stoops met with his coaches on Sunday to finalize a plan for the month of December. That plan went into action with individual player meetings on Monday. Sometimes those conversations can be difficult. Here’s how they unfold in the simplest of terms:
“Here’s your role, here’s what we expect your role to be, here’s your opportunity, and you do what’s best for you,” said Stoops.
Jalen Geiger was the first Wildcat to hit the portal. Mark Stoops thanked the safety for his contributions to the program, but acknowledged that’s the nature of the game in today’s college football.
“It happens,” Stoops said. “The other the is that that people gotta understand is we actually have to have some leave. I don’t even have room for what we have committed and what we have (on the roster) and what we need in the portal. So we have to clear out some, not that we did on that (with Geiger), but I’m just saying like when we’re counting on some portal changes, you know, I don’t have enough scholarships.”
That is how it works for outgoing players. As for potential additions, the Kentucky coaching staff closely monitors the seemingly unending stream of players entering the portal to determine who could fit what the Cats need.
“We have a recruiting room that’s a whole wing. They’re in there grinding away all day, every day,” Stoops said Monday. “If I walked in there right now, there would be 15-20 people at a time on the computer watching people.”
Player Decisions Impact Roster Needs
The COVID-19 eligibility waiver complicates the equation ever so slightly. Many players who have graduated could spend another year playing college football in Kentucky, or elsewhere. Stoops’ staff has a much better idea of where players stand following individual meetings than outside observers.
There’s one other factor to consider: the NFL Draft. Kentucky left tackle Marques Cox could be a day three selection. What he decides will determine how active the Cats will pursue offensive tackles in the transfer portal.
For players who are currently in limbo, Stoops made it clear that the Kentucky coaches need answers by the end of the week to be prepared when the portal opens on Monday. Trevin Wallace is a wild card, as the NFL draft process for underclassmen takes longer. If Kentucky needs reinforcements for a vacancy left by Wallace, it will wait till the spring.
What Kentucky needs from the Transfer Portal
As previously stated, a transfer portal budget is still being formulated at the Joe Craft Football Facility. Using Adam Luckett’s scholarship count as a reference, here’s a good idea of the positions Kentucky will need to target during roster management season.
Quarterback — Boley has a bright future, but Kentucky cannot wager an entire season (or two) on his shoulders. There is expected to be plenty of options to emerge in the coming weeks, but KSR has heard of two names the Wildcats have on their short list of candidates.
Offensive Tackle — As previously mentioned, Marques Cox’s decision will determine exact fit, but Jeremy Flax‘s time is finished. Malachi Wood and Nik Hall are still green, and the latter is coming off season-ending surgery.
Wide Receiver — Depth was an issue for the Cats in 2023. Three potential role players departed last fall following the emergence of Dane Key and Barion Brown. Expect one or two pass-catchers to be in the mix for the Wildcats this month.
Running Back — Ray Davis and Ramon Jefferson accounted for 70.9% of Kentucky’s carries this fall and Demie Sumo-Karngbaye spent a significant amount of the season lining up at wide receiver. The Cats will have three freshmen in the fold next fall, but another portal addition is likely.
Defense — When discussing roster management on Monday night’s call-in show, Mark Stoops feels good about where they stand defensively. An inside linebacker addition is probably in the cards, especially if Wallace head to the NFL Draft. Safety and edge rusher may also become needs, depending on how many current players on the roster decide to take their talents elsewhere.
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