LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky running back Benny Snell didn’t record a carry in his first two games before playing a lead part in the offense and breaking the school freshman rushing record.
Snell’s contributions came out of nowhere, so we took a look at five under-the-radar players who could break out for the Wildcats in 2017.
CB Jordan Griffin
Kentucky’s defensive coaching staff might’ve been more high on Griffin than any other young player this season. Griffin was one of the top commits in Kentucky’s 2016 class and largely made his debut on special teams this season.
And while he gradually became more involved in the cornerback rotation with Derrick Baity, Chris Westry and J.D. Harmon, Griffin seems primed to assume a much bigger role in 2017. Both Mark Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot have praised his work ethic and maturity.
“Jordan is a guy that comes to practice every day locked in, tries to get better,” Eliot said in late November. “He’s improved tremendously this season because he concentrates and he pays attention when he’s not in. When he does get in he does the little things right, takes it very seriously. He’s got a great approach to the game.”
He played eight games and recorded six tackles in 2016. With Harmon graduated, look for Griffin to be the first corner to rotate in behind starters Baity and Westry.
RB Sihiem King
Rumors were swirling that King could transfer but that’s highly unlikely now that the backfield is less crowded with Boom Williams’ departure. And it’s even better for King as he possess a skill set similar to the one Williams brought.
Bruiser Benny Snell will be the workhorse but King, also a kick returner, could provide the changeup that Williams did. The 5-foot-9, 172-pound back could become an electric option in the backfield if he can get in space. He’ll also be sharing duties with highly touted freshman A.J. Rose.
King had to wait his turn in 2016, and while the chances didn’t really come, he converted his 11 carries into 81 yards and a score. With Williams gone the door has opened for King next season.
DL T.J. Carter
OK, maybe Carter isn’t so under-the-radar after becoming a pretty big true freshman contributor in 2016. But the expectations have only risen for the 6-foot-4, 275-pound defensive lineman that can slide into several positions up front.
Carter is listed as a defensive end, but he can play on the interior as well. The defensive front might’ve been the weakest position group for Kentucky this season, but Carter filled his role well. He recorded 11 tackles and could play a starting role in 2017.
OT Luke Fortner
Like all the other players on this list, the staff likes what they see. The 6-foot-6, 305-pound freshman tackle could become a regular in the offensive line rotation next season. The Sylvania, Ohio native wasn’t a prized commit in the 2016 class, but he made an impact in his redshirt season.
Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran was asked who stood out to him in bowl practices, and Fortner was his first response.
“Watching him the other day and watching him come around and pull on some of our gap stuff, he’s really athletic and he’s really big,” Gran said. “He’s got me excited.”
Starting senior tackles Cole Mosier and Kyle Meadows will be back along with sophomore Landon Young, but don’t be surprised if Fortner gets thrown into the mix as well.
LB Jaylin Bannerman
In one of Stoops’ last call-in radio shows of the season, he brought up Jaylin Bannerman’s name at least twice. Not much had been heard of Bannerman’s redshirt season, but apparently it was a good one.
The former 3-star prospect in the 2016 class possesses solid pass rush skills according to his coaches and that could find him cracking the linebacker rotation a season from now. Kentucky returns all of its starters, but depth like Bannerman could provide would be welcomed for Eliot’s defense.