Sixteen freshmen or redshirt freshmen were included on UK’s two-deep depth chart with a handful of others running closely behind or serving key roles on special teams.
It’s a new era of college football, according to UK head coach Mark Stoops.
“I think you can see that from some of the perennial Top 10 teams, even they will play some freshman to plug in holes,” he said. “... If guys come in and they can help you and they are talented players, I expect them to play. Because the more games we win, the more talented players we are going to get, and so you expect those guys to come in and help you.”
On the offensive side of the ball, the Cats expect to start two freshmen directly out of the high school ranks - tight end C.J. Conrad and right tackle George Asafo-Adjei. Redshirt freshman Darryl Long is the backup tight end, while redshirts Jervontius Stallings and Jarrett LaRubbio are No. 2 at left guard and right guard, respectively.
Another redshirt, Drew Barker, is the backup at quarterback after a spirited competition this spring and into fall camp with junior Patrick Towles. One of their primary receiving targets, redshirt Thaddeus Snodgrass, is running as a No. 2 receiver.
Freshman running back Sihiem King is fourth on the ladder at running back, but that position typically goes deeper than many others during the course of a rugged SEC schedule, and the talented Georgia native is expected to be the Cats’ primary kickoff return man to start the season.
Meanwhile, defensively, redshirt freshman Denzil Ware gets the starting nod at the hybrid end/linebacker position vacated by NFL Draft pick Bud Dupree and freshman Chris Westry steps in at one of the corners.
Westry, a physical specimen at 6-foot-4 and 185 pounds, is a prime candidate to be a breakout player this season. The Florida native, who originally committed to play for Auburn before flipping to the Cats, features length and athleticism at the position that UK has sorely lacked in matchups with bigger receivers.
“I think Chris Westry would be a guy that you know I have talked about,” Stoops said. “We needed to improve outside in the secondary. He’s a guy that I’m excited to watch, he has a lot of talent.”
The young backups on defense include: redshirt Adrian Middleton (DT), freshman Kengera Daniel (DE/OLB), freshman Josh Allen (OLB), redshirt Nico Firios (MLB), freshman Eli Brown (OLB), freshman Derrick Baity (CB), redshirt Mike Edwards (S) and redshirt Darius West (S).
Five of UK’s nine players on the linebacker depth chart in the 3-4 scheme have no game experience.
Stoops acknowledged that some may be concerned about that much youth, but noted that the 10 redshirt freshmen expected to play learned a lot during their first year in the program.
“The good news about those 10 redshirt freshmen is that they’re redshirt freshmen,” he said. “So I think just any experience we’ve got the last few years can only help us. I think there were some significant players that I have mentioned often, certainly on the offensive side of the ball, that are going to be second-year guys. So at least they have that year of experience.”