The window for undergraduates to enter the transfer portal has not even officially opened yet and college football’s version of free agency is already heating up.
On Thursday, Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara, who led the Wolverines to the playoff a year ago, committed to Iowa as a graduate transfer. McNamara might have been the highest-profile player to enter the portal since the end of the regular season, but even with him off the table there is no shortage of familiar faces looking for a new school.
Graduate transfers and players on teams going through a coaching change can already enter the portal. Everyone else can officially enter starting Monday. Many undergraduates, including multiple Kentucky players, have already announced plans to enter the portal when the December window opens.
There will be another window for players to enter the portal in May, but Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops will certainly look to add several players from the first wave of transfers as he works to fill holes on his 2023 roster.
Here is a look at four positions where the Wildcats could use a boost from transfers.
The competition to replace Will Levis will include current backups Kaiya Sheron and Destin Wade, but it is likely the Wildcats’ next starting quarterback is not yet on the roster.
Before he was fired this week, former offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello was open about the plan to use his experience working with top high school and college quarterbacks through the QB Collective camp while working as an NFL assistant. That connection is no longer of use to Kentucky, but the need to add a transfer quarterback to at least increase the competition in spring practice has not changed.
Some of the top quarterbacks in the portal, like McNamara, may already have an idea of where they plan to commit. Others will take their time to consider the wave of scholarship offers that come after officially entering the portal.
Moving quickly on an offensive coordinator hire could be important in attracting Kentucky’s next quarterback, but the presence of wide receivers Barion Brown and Dane Key and tight ends Jordan Dingle and Josh Kattus on the roster as a nucleus of pass-catchers should be a valuable selling point.
Jeff Simms (Georgia Tech), Brennan Armstrong (Virginia), Hudson Card (Texas) and Hank Bachmeier (Boise State) are high-profile quarterbacks that are either in the portal already or have been reported to be entering it. Others will surely follow. One name to watch in the coming weeks is Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz, who reportedly could consider a transfer after Wisconsin hired Luke Fickell as its new coach. Mertz has battled inconsistency in college but has the same type of arm talent that attracted former UK offensive coordinator Liam Coen to Levis when he was stuck as Penn State’s backup.
During his final radio show of the season Monday, Stoops was asked by a caller if he planned on adding a “couple of offensive tackles and maybe a center and offensive guard” in the portal. While acknowledging the offensive line struggled for much of the season, Stoops pushed back on the suggestion that the position needed a complete overhaul.
“Bottom line, simple answer, are you looking for a little bit of help in the portal for offensive line? Yes,” Stoops said. “Respectfully disagree with some of the opinions of the other guys. … Obviously there were some times where we underperformed. I felt like they got a lot better as the year went on. I felt like some of that is on us. As I mentioned all year, some of that is on us as a coaching staff.
“We got caught short at left tackle. We had a left tackle leave a year ago, decide to play in the NFL and didn’t make it. If he was here, we wouldn’t have had to kick Kenneth (Horsey) out to left and Kenneth would play inside. All of a sudden, you’re pretty stout. Really feel good at center, to be honest with you, at that position. And feel really good at guard. Need some help at a couple positions, but yes, a little bit of depth there from the portal would definitely help.”
After the Governor’s Cup win over Louisville, Scangarello hinted that Horsey could elect to use the extra year of eligibility granted all players during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 to return to Kentucky next year and move back to his natural guard position. Stoops is clearly happy with the growth of Eli Cox at center. Coaches praised guard Jager Burton for his progress late in his redshirt freshman season, especially against No. 1 Georgia.
Still, reinforcements are needed, especially at tackle. Right tackle Jeremy Flax is set to return, but even if he retains his starting position competition will be needed for him. Sophomore Deondre Buford and redshirt freshman David Wohlabaugh were unable to hold down spots in the tackle rotation this year. Kiyaunta Goodwin, a former five-star recruit, was listed as the backup left tackle but played almost exclusively on the field goal unit as a freshman
Alabama offensive lineman Tanner Bowles, the former Glasgow High School star, is reportedly entering the portal and will probably be a target for Kentucky. UK coaches got a close look at Northern Illinois left tackle Marques Cox, who reportedly is entering the portal, when they played the Huskies in September.
Kentucky could lose both its starting outside linebackers this offseason. Super senior outside linebacker Jordan Wright has exhausted his eligibility. Fourth-year junior J.J. Weaver went through Senior Day while he considers entering the NFL Draft.
There is exciting young talent on the roster behind that duo, but relying on 2022 high school signees Keaten Wade, Tyreese Fearbry and Noah Matthews to carry the load alone would be a risky proposition. Of that group, only Wade played significant snaps this season.
Getting Weaver to return will be goal No. 1. He played well down the stretch as he neared 100% following an early season elbow injury but has yet to translate his considerable potential into consistent production. Considering how often injuries have derailed his progress (Weaver tore his ACL as a redshirt freshman), it is understandable that he considers jumping to the NFL now, but he could probably improve his draft stock significantly with a fully healthy season in Lexington next year.
Even if Weaver returns, adding another edge rusher seems prudent. The early name to watch is Stanford graduate transfer Stephen Herron, a former Trinity High School star who considered Kentucky out of high school. Stoops and recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow have found success recruiting Louisville natives in recent years, but they will surely face competition from Louisville, Purdue and others for Herron’s commitment.
Assuming star Chris Rodriguez does not elect to use his extra year of eligibility to return to Kentucky, the Wildcats will be in the market for a new starting running back this offseason.
Junior JuTahn McClain impressed as Rodriguez’s backup in the second half of the season, but durability has been a concern throughout his career. Former Sam Houston transfer Ramon Jefferson is seeking a waiver from the NCAA for a seventh college season after suffering a season-ending knee injury on UK’s first offensive series of the season, but it is unclear if the NCAA will grant that waiver or how effective Jefferson will be coming off the injury if he does return.
Senior backup Kavosiey Smoke has already entered the transfer portal. Redshirt freshman La’Vell Wright recorded carries in just two of the final eight regular season games. Junior Mike Drennen did not play in a game in 2022. Former Tennessee transfer Dee Beckwith’s only running back snaps came late in blowouts and he has already been moved to multiple positions in one year at UK.
After seven consecutive years of Benny Snell or Rodriguez in the backfield, Kentucky could use a new workhorse back. This is a position where the staff can at least afford to be patient though, waiting to see if a young running back like Wright takes a step forward while evaluating the options that enter the portal in December and May.