Who stays, who goes? Kentucky football roster faces key decisions after Citrus Bowl

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  • Mark Stoops
    American football player and coach

ORLANDO — Following Kentucky football's dramatic 20-17 win over Iowa in the Citrus Bowl, the Wildcat roster is in flux heading into the offseason.

A large number of players face decisions about whether to return to Kentucky. The NFL draft, extra year of eligibility and transfer portal are all factors heading into the offseason.

The first important decision has already been made with UK quarterback Will Levis announcing he plans to return to Kentucky for the 2022 season, but the rest of the UK players asked about their future in the leadup to the Citrus Bowl said they were focusing on the game before making any final decisions.

Citrus Bowl: Record-breaking performance from Wan'Dale Robinson leads UK to Citrus Bowl win

We do know Kentucky's roster will be boosted by the highest-ranked signing class in the Mark Stoops era. UK's December class was ranked 10th nationally by Rivals.com. While that ranking may drop some after February signees are added, it is a lock to finish as the highest-ranked UK class in the recruiting website era.

A host of promising underclassmen including tight end Izayah Cummings, running back JuTahn McClain, defensive linemen Tre'Vonn Rybka, Justin Rogers and Josaih Hayes, linebackers Trevin Wallace and D'Eryk Jackson should step into larger roles next season alongside preseason All-SEC candidates Levis, outside linebacker J.J. Weaver, offensive guard Eli Cox, but but in the era of free transfers no return can be assumed until the 2022 roster is released.

Here is a closer look at what we know about the stay-or-go decisions expected to be announced in the coming weeks.

Wan'Dale Robinson and other NFL draft decisions

Kentucky's Wan'Dale Robinson catches a pass on his team's first touchdown drive against Louisville at Cardinal Stadium. Nov 27, 2021
Kentucky's Wan'Dale Robinson catches a pass on his team's first touchdown drive against Louisville at Cardinal Stadium. Nov 27, 2021

Even with Levis returning, the Wildcats could lose multiple underclassmen to the NFL draft, led by junior wide receiver Wan'Dale Robinson.

While Robinson said after the game he had not made a final decision about his future and fans chanted "one more year" as he received the MVP trophy following his seven catches for 170 yards in the Citrus Bowl, it would be a surprise to see him return to Kentucky. Robinson broke the school's record for catches in a season in the regular season finale then broke the single-season record for receiving yards on his final catch to set up the game-winning touchdown against Iowa.

Left tackle Dare Rosenthal and running back Chris Rodriguez are among the other underclassmen who could consider entering the draft.

Rosenthal started all 12 games for Kentucky in the regular season but did not play in the Citrus Bowl. UK did not specify if his absence was due to an injury or COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

Rodriguez was considered a likely early draft entrant entering the season, but multiple fumbles in key moments marred a season that saw him break the UK record for most 100-yard rushing performances. Before the season, Rodriguez said his primary goal in returning to Kentucky for 2021 was becoming the first member of his family to graduate college. If Rodriguez finishes his degree this spring, that might push him to the NFL.

Kentucky football 2022 schedule: Return of Governor's Cup rivalry to Lexington highlights next season's games

Jacquez Jones among seniors who could use extra year of eligibility

Kentucky's Jacquez Jones signals Ls down to the Cardinal crowd after stopping Louisville's Trevion Cooley for a loss in the second half as the Wildcats rolled past Louisville 52-21 Saturday night. Nov. 27, 2021
Kentucky's Jacquez Jones signals Ls down to the Cardinal crowd after stopping Louisville's Trevion Cooley for a loss in the second half as the Wildcats rolled past Louisville 52-21 Saturday night. Nov. 27, 2021

Thanks to the extra year of eligibility granted all players who were on rosters in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, several Kentucky seniors could return to school next year.

The best NFL draft prospects among the group, like right tackle Darian Kinnard and defensive end Josh Paschal, are done. Seniors Isaiah Epps, Marquez Bembry and Naasir Watkins have already entered the transfer portal, signaling they will look to use their extra year of eligibility elsewhere.

With the "super seniors" counting against the 85-man scholarship limit again next year, it is not as simple for UK as allowing anyone who wants to come back to return to campus.

Linebacker Jacquez Jones is the most likely senior to come back considering he decided not to participate in senior day festivities before the final home game, but said before the bowl he was still weighing his options. There was some hope that nose guard Marquan McCall might return after missing part of the season with an injury, but he recently accepted an invitation to the East-West Shrine Bowl, an all-star game for senior NFL draft prospects.

Kentucky football roster: Who UK is losing and adding through the transfer portal during offseason

Defensive lineman Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald, offensive guard Austin Dotson, linebacker DeAndre Square, wide receiver Clevan Thomas, outside linebacker Jordan Wright and defensive backs Tyrell Agian, Yusuf Corker and Cedrick Dort are the scholarship seniors who could return to UK.

Square said after the Citrus Bowl he would meet with his family before making a decision.

Kentucky's 2021 roster included nine super seniors who saw their college careers end with the Citrus Bowl: wide receiver Josh Ali, center Luke Fortner, kick returner Zach Johnson, cornerback Quandre Mosely, nickelback Davonte Robinson, tight end Justin Rigg, kicker Matt Ruffolo, punter Colin Goodfellow and walk-on inside linebacker William Nalty.

More outgoing transfers expected in coming months

UK inside linebacker Jared Casey. Aug. 6, 2021
UK inside linebacker Jared Casey. Aug. 6, 2021

Kentucky already experienced its first wave of outgoing transfers after the end of the regular season but more departures are expected in the first full offseason with the NCAA's one-time free transfer rule.

Since the end of the regular season, Bembry, Epps and Watkins have been joined in the transfer portal by inside linebacker Jared Casey, running back Torrance Davis, defensive lineman Isaiah Gibson, outside linebacker K.D. McDaniel, offensive tackle Jake Pope, quarterback Nik Scalzo and running back Travis Tisdale. None of those players were expected to fill starting roles in 2022.

There could be another wave of transfers after the conclusion of bowl games but most of the players still on the roster could stick with the team through spring practice to evaluate where they stand on the 2022 depth chart before the bulk of the highest-ranked signing class of the Stoops era arrives on campus. While most outgoing transfers will come from players searching for more snaps, Kentucky's coaches will have to be cognizant of the chance some of its better players look for featured roles at higher profile programs.

UK football recruiting: Five-star Louisville native Kiyaunta Goodwin sticks with UK over Michigan St.

Stoops has been clear in recent weeks he will give each player a frank assessment of where they stand in the 2022 roster plans to help them make the best decision.

"Sometimes now in this new world we are in, it's mutual," Stoops said before the Citrus Bowl. "You have hard conversations with guys. You give them the reality of what the situation is, and they make choices. ... All the guys have worked extremely hard and we want to help them land on their feet with a new opportunity."

Early enrollees get head start on 2022 class

Five-star offensive tackle Kiyaunta Goodwin, right, got a high-five from friend Kamla Jones after Goodwin made the decision to play football at Kentucky instead of Michigan State during  a signing ceremony at the Aspirations gym in Louisville, Ky. on Dec. 15, 2021.  Jones is a UK graduate.
Five-star offensive tackle Kiyaunta Goodwin, right, got a high-five from friend Kamla Jones after Goodwin made the decision to play football at Kentucky instead of Michigan State during a signing ceremony at the Aspirations gym in Louisville, Ky. on Dec. 15, 2021. Jones is a UK graduate.

While most of the focus in the coming weeks will be on outgoing players, early this month UK's roster will receive its first reinforcements.

Seven high school seniors who signed with Kentucky in December are planning to enroll for the spring semester: four-star offensive lineman Grant Bingham, three-star defensive end Tomiwa Durojaiye, five-star offensive tackle Kiyaunta Goodwin, three-star defensive lineman Quentel Jones, four-star wide receiver Dane Key, three-star cornerback Elijah Reed and four-star cornerback Andre Stewart. They will be joined by junior-college cornerback transfer Zah Frazier, Virginia Tech wide receiver transfer Tayvion Robinson and Auburn offensive guard transfer Tashawn Manning.

The transfers can all be expected to compete for starting jobs this spring, but Goodwin, Key, Reed and Stewart also arrive at positions of need with considerable recruiting hype.

Kentucky might not sign anymore high school prospects in the February period, but expect the staff to pursue multiple transfers, specifically at the edge rusher positions.

Email Jon Hale at jahale@courier-journal.com; Follow him on Twitter at @JonHale_CJ.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Kentucky football roster: Draft, transfer, extra year choice breakdown

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