In NIL world, can UK football keep its young nucleus intact?


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Game day: Kentucky 26, No. 25 Louisville 13

Click below for more of the Herald-Leader’s and Kentucky.com’s coverage of Saturday’s Kentucky-Louisville football game at Kroger Field in Lexington.

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On a Saturday when the Kentucky football program honored a historically meritorious senior class, it was UK’s precocious freshmen who took center stage.

Getting high-level contributions from at least five frosh, the Wildcats retained the Governor’s Cup trophy for the fourth straight time with a 26-13 victory over archrival Louisville.

At the end of a season that began with the Big Blue Nation dreaming of SEC East title contention but instead produced a litany of frustrations, Kentucky (7-5, 3-5 SEC) at least gave its fan base a going-away gift.

“Obviously, the season didn’t go as we had planned,” UK quarterback Will Levis said. “But we knew we would feel a whole lot better about it with a win (over U of L) instead of a loss.”

A Kroger Field crowd announced at 58,727 saw Louisville’s season record drop to 7-5 (4-4 ACC) and Cardinals Coach Scott Satterfield’s record in the Governor’s Cup rivalry fall to 0-3.

The Cards were far more competitive along both lines of scrimmage vs. UK than they had been while being outscored 153-44 in their prior three defeats vs. the Wildcats. But the combination of three U of L turnovers and UK’s fabulous freshmen meant that “L’s” were again turned down in the Governor’s Cup.

Both of Kentucky’s touchdowns were scored by true freshmen wide receivers. Dane Key got UK on the board first when he expertly ran a slant route that yielded an 8-yard touchdown pass from Levis.

Wildcats offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello said the Key TD was uniquely rewarding to him because, after UK’s Wednesday practice, he watched Key (three catches, 37 yards) and his fellow Frederick Douglass High School alum, Dekel Crowdus, working on their own time on that route.

“I saw it come to life,” Scangarello said. “The detail, the way (Key) set the corner(back) up and beat him, that’s what it takes. That detail is the key.”

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Kentucky true freshman wide receiver Dane Key (6) celebrates a touchdown during UK’s 26-13 victory over Louisville to retain the Governor’s Cup for a fourth consecutive time and the fifth time in the past six meetings between UK and U of L. Silas Walker swalker@herald-leader.com

The TD by Key was set up by a 70-yard catch and run by another true freshman — tight end Josh Kattus (two catches, 76 yards). “That guy,” Scangarello said of Kattus, “has some real special traits.”

Kentucky’s other touchdown came on a 3-yard Levis pass to Barion Brown (four catches, 44 yards) on a fade route in the third quarter in which the Nashville product rose above a defender and came down with a score.

“All week, me and my coach (were) practicing fade balls consistently,” Brown said. “Every day, after practice, we would get something in — and it paid off.”

Throw in redshirt freshman tight end Jordan Dingle (one reception, 18 yards), and 10 of UK’s 11 catches vs. U of L and 175 of its 188 receiving yards came from freshmen.

Referring to Key and Brown, Scangarello said “(Nos.) 6 and 2 are just blossoming. And those two tight ends (Kattus and Dingle) are really special.”

Defensively, Kentucky tackle Deone Walker put the finishing touches on a massively impressive true freshman season with six tackles, two quarterback hurries, a tackle for a loss and a half-share of a sack.

As he often did this season, the 6-foot-6, 330-pound Walker, a Detroit product, appeared on various plays to have cratered an entire side of the U of L offensive line.

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Kentucky defensive tackle Deone Walker (0) celebrates after one of his six tackles in UK’s 26-13 victory over archrival Louisville on Saturday. Silas Walker swalker@herald-leader.com

In the old days, such an exciting performance from so many freshmen in the final game of a regular season would leave a fan base with visions of future glories dancing in heads.

Alas, in our current era of allowing one free transfer and the name, image and likeness rights of players having evolved into booster collectives deploying their financial might in recruiting, that future is not promised.

When it was announced Nov. 14 that a UK-oriented collective to which the average fan can contribute was open for business, much focus was on what the launch of “The 15 Club” might mean for Wildcats recruiting.

Actually, in the short term, it is “retaining” that is the biggest key to Kentucky’s immediate football future.

There is nothing more important to UK football success in 2023 than assuring that Walker, Brown, Key, Kattus and Dingle — as well as other of this season’s promising freshmen performers such as defensive backs Alex Afari and Kobi Albert; outside linebacker Keaten Wade; starting offensive guard Jager Burton and free safety Jordan Lovett (the latter two redshirt freshmen) — are still on the Cats’ roster when Kentucky kicks off against Ball State next Sept. 2.

Speculation has been acute that collectives with allegiances to some of the most traditional brands in college football have put out feelers to UK’s standout freshmen.

The most-circulated rumor has a collective seeking to boost the Tennessee football program attempting to woo Brown away from UK and back to his home-state university.

What about that, Barion? “I don’t know who started that rumor, but I am BBN for life,” Brown said Saturday.

Addressing a large gaggle of reporters, Brown had a question of his own. “Can you all stop the rumors, please?”

Probably not.

What does seem clear, though, is that if Kentucky is going to ultimately reap the benefit of the freshmen whose star potential was on display Saturday as the Cats took down Louisville, then those who are emotionally invested in UK football success are likely going to have to make some financial contribution, too.

This story was originally published November 26, 2022 11:07 PM.

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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