The transfer portal supplied Kentucky’s football team with some of its biggest difference-makers in the 2021 season.
To date, for the 2022 campaign it’s earned the commitments of five players who spent the last year at another Power Five school. Four of them — quarterback Deuce Hogan (Iowa), wide receiver Tayvion Robinson (Virginia Tech), offensive lineman Tashawn Manning (Auburn) and defensive lineman Darrion Henry-Young (Ohio State) — enrolled ahead of UK’s spring semester and will be in camp when spring practice kicks off in March. The fifth, receiver Javon Baker, will come by way of Alabama in the summer. He might not be the last addition, but any further newcomers will be in the same boat as him in terms of spring availability.
UK’s four on-campus transfers spoke to local media for the first time Thursday. Here are some takeaways from that session.
Kentucky’s culture impresses
None of the signed transfers left situations that were demonstrably bad — all of their teams played in bowl games — and all had unique reasons for diving into the portal and choosing Kentucky. Robinson wanted to be featured more in a pro-style offense. Manning, a grad student, sought refinement for the next level at a place where offensive-line play is celebrated. Henry-Young found a home where playing time in the coming years appears more readily available.
One factor united their decisions: team culture.
“Waking up at five or six o’clock is not fun for nobody,” Robinson said. “But when I came on a visit after I went into the portal, I came to a practice and sat back and watched everyone prepare before practice. Everybody in the building wanted to be here, it wasn’t like they were dragging along feeling muggy, groggy, saying, ‘I wish I could go back and take another hour of sleep.’ They were happy to be here.”
“You walk into the locker room and everyone’s dancing and laughing, music’s playing when everybody’s lifting. Everybody just looked like they were having fun,” said Hogan, unique among the four transfers in that he’s a walk-on. “There can be places where people are more strict, but I think there’s a lot of value in everybody wanting to be in the facility that day, everybody wanting to wake up and go be with those coaches and be in that weight room.”
“I saw it with my own eyes at the bowl site in Orlando,” said Manning, who was in person to see UK’s bowl win over Hogan’s former team. “The guys, they came out and they were ready to get their work in, they were happy to get their work in. They got in and got out, and there wasn’t any, like, trying to get everybody to turn it up a notch or trying to get guys to keep going. They came out with their own desire to get better.”
Robinson was a true freshman at Virginia Tech when the Hokies lost to UK in the 2019 Belk Bowl. (He recalled being on the receiving end of a Yusuf Corker tackle in that game. “It took all the way to the end of the season to get my ‘welcome to college’ hit,” Robinson said with a laugh.)
UK’s offense operated without a true quarterback for most of that season. Receiver Lynn Bowden racked up multiple 100-yard rushing games as a “wildcat” quarterback, including 233 yards against the Hokies before throwing the game-winning touchdown with 15 seconds left to play. It was effective enough, but between that campaign and the next, Kentucky’s hopes of attracting marquee wide-receiver talent were dead.
Enter Liam Coen, who took over UK’s offense after spending three seasons with the Los Angeles Rams. Last year he sold Nebraska transfer Wan’Dale Robinson on the promise of a revamped scheme at his home-state school. Now he’s selling guys like Tayvion Robinson on the opportunity to do things like Wan’Dale Robinson did.
“In 2019 it was the Lynn Bowden show and we had to watch that for three or four hours,” Tayvion Robinson said. “Now they have more of a pro-style NFL offense that throws the ball around and runs it well. … (Liam) really knows his stuff. He really has his kids’ best interests at heart and wants to see nothing but success from all of us.”
Loyalty and opportunity matter
Having established, successful players on the roster, it turns out, is an attractive quality for guys looking to move on from their current situation.
Quarterback Will Levis, who‘s made a name for himself not just with his arm but as a tough runner, has been a natural leader since his first day on campus. Running back Chris Rodriguez will be in contention to claim the school’s rushing record for himself this fall. A trio of multi-year starters at linebacker — Jacquez Jones, DeAndre Square and Jordan Wright — will suit up as “super seniors” in 2022.
Rodriguez, Square and Wright were high school recruits who’ve been at Kentucky for years while Jones and Levis joined the fray as transfers last season.
“It kind of shows that they will give whoever an opportunity,” Hogan said. “I’m all about loyalty. When you recruit a kid and that kid’s family, you know, it’s awesome to give that kid an opportunity. On the other side of it, there is a business aspect to this whole thing, as everybody knows, so to see guys come in and be able to make an instant impact is very attractive.”
Having a quarterback who plays like Levis, in particular, is exciting for the incoming talent.
“If they’re gonna fight for those extra yards, then I’m gonna fight to make sure they get to that first down,” Manning said.
It’s not surprising that guys who’ve spent anywhere from two to four years in a Power Five football program would show up at Kentucky and seem further along in their maturation than incoming freshmen. They all have a clearer vision of what they want from their experience at UK than what they might have wanted at their previous school.
Manning, 23, is an elder statesman not just among the transfers but most of the team. He played four seasons at Auburn and was on its campus for five years. He didn’t enroll until January 2017 after undergoing treatment for leukemia after he was diagnosed at the end of his final high school season in 2015. Kenneth Horsey and Eli Cox, both his junior, have taken him under their wings as he makes the transition from Auburn, but he hopes to emerge as a leader for the offensive line this season.
Henry-Young, a Cincinnati native, was buried on the depth chart at Ohio State and for the third straight season might have barely played. The former four-star prospect and top-150 player should be able to carve out a role more quickly in Lexington following the departure of Josh Paschal for the NFL Draft.
“Being an Ohio kid, it was always a dream to play at Ohio State,” said Henry-Young, who included Kentucky in his final six schools when he signed with the Buckeyes in 2020. “ … Coach (Mark) Stoops, when I was in high school, he did a great job. I noticed the success here. But throughout when I was in college, I noticed he was building something different and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Hogan, a former four-star prospect out of Texas, announced his intent to transfer soon after a dismissive public comment about his playing ability made by Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, for which the longtime Hawkeyes coach later apologized. Hogan didn’t speak about that incident Thursday, but he seems to have put it behind him. He reflected kindly on his experience at Iowa.
“I moved 16 hours from home and kind of cut the umbilical cord, is the best way I could say it,” Hogan said. “You just learn to do your own thing. I’m responsible for myself for the first time. And, luckily, I come from an unbelievable family with a great mom and dad, so I was taken care of. Not necessarily babied, but you know, there’s a transition from boy to man. Iowa was there to experience that transition and other rough spots just like everybody goes through. …
“I’ve done some of the harder things and so I would say my experiences outside of football have just kind of caused me to grow up, age me in a good way, I think.”