Kentucky Wildcats football newcomers to watch in 2022 season

After attending Kentucky football’s open practice at Fan Day on Saturday at the Joe Craft Football Training Center, here are three Wildcats worthy of a second look (and more):

1. Barion Brown

The freshman wide receiver out of Nashville earned Media Day praise from head coach Mark Stoops after the team’s initial practice on Wednesday morning. Saturday, Brown was among the first and second group of receivers for quarterback Will Levis.

“First practice we did a nice little ‘go ball’ to Barion in team run which was nice,” Levis said Saturday. “He’s got really good speed and it’s good to see his ball skills. He just needs to be a little more consistent. I know he can make the catches, it’s just getting to work with him and making sure he just has a feel for how I throw the ball.”

Unlike Frederick Douglass product Dane Key, who starred at wide receiver during spring drills, Brown didn’t report to camp until the summer. Still, it’s obvious that the coaches are working the four-star prospect into the rotation quickly.

“This is definitely the most talented group we’ve had as a whole,” Stoops said Saturday of the wide receivers. “We’ve had really talented individual players here, but as a group we’ve never had this kind of depth with the talent that we have.”

Running back Ramon Jefferson transferred to Kentucky from Sam Houston State of the Football Championship Subdivision, where he was an All-American. Silas Walker

2. Ramon Jefferson

Despite his uncertain status, Chris Rodriguez did participate in Saturday’s drills, but the most intriguing running back was Sam Houston State transfer Ramon Jefferson.

The 5-foot-10, 215-pounder from the Bronx in New York is not the tallest back, but he is muscular and showed good speed as a darter making the edge.

“He’s a bowling ball. He’s a little Mighty Mouse. He’s like Doug Martin,” Levis said. “He’s got a good feel. He bounces when he’s supposed to bounce it. He cuts it when he’s supposed to cut. When you watch the tape, it jumps out immediately.”

When Jefferson officially committed to Kentucky this summer, NFL Draft analyst Emory Hunt, who specializes in scouting Group of Five and FCS players, told me, “Tremendous one-cut, downhill runner with excellent burst. He’s got really good leg drive and an ability to be a chunk-play gainer. I’m a big fan of his game.”

3. Keidron Smith

The transfer from Ole Miss was added to bring needed depth to a UK secondary hit hard by graduation and injuries. Don’t be surprised, however, if Smith ends up as a starter at cornerback.

The 6-2, 204-pound West Palm Beach, Fla., native started 22 of the 47 games in which he saw action at Ole Miss. As a two-year starter, he made five interceptions, eight tackles for loss and one sack.

He also has old buddy Jacquez Jones, the linebacker who transferred to UK from Ole Miss last year, playing in front of him in Brad White’s defense.

“He’s an all-around great player and great person,” Jones said Saturday. “We needed size and depth at cornerback and I feel like he’s going to help us out a lot.”

The two have an off-the-field connection, as well.

“That’s my old roommate,” Jones said. “As soon as he hit the portal, I got him on speed dial and tell him, ‘Go ahead and get up here. We’re trying to do something special.’ We came in together at Ole Miss and we’re about to leave out together at Kentucky. So let’s do something special.”

Defensive back Keidron Smith (top) tackled Kentucky running back Chris Rodriguez with the help of Ole Miss teammate Sam Williams during a game in 2020. Smith transferred this offseason to the Wildcats. Alex Slitz

John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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