Kentucky football: Players love for UK and Stoops spur return for 1 more year

Darian Kinnard of the Kentucky Wildcats. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Darian Kinnard of the Kentucky Wildcats. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /

Kentucky football players opting to return could mean Top 25 next season.

Call it a late Christmas present or a New Year’s surprise whatever the case the return of some key Kentucky football players who have opted to return out of love for UK and coach Mark Stoops just may vault them into the top 25 next season.

Hot on the heels of Kentucky’s third straight bowl win when they topped No. 23 NC State in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl on Saturday the love for Big Blue Nation, UK and Stoops had players wanting to accomplish something no other Wildcat team has ever done and that is win 4 bowls in a row.

The NCAA granted an essential free pass to players who wanted to have another year of eligibility due to uncertainty that Covid-19 left behind in 2020.

It didn’t take long for social media to light up on Sunday and Monday with some juniors and seniors putting their NFL hopes and dreams on hold to play one more year in Lexington much to the delight of coaches, teammates, and fans.

Although the sweetest stunner came Monday when left tackle Darian Kinnard made it known instead of the NFL he wanted more time in the Commonwealth. He was projected to be drafted high already, but his return could make him a consensus preseason All-American.

Yet it was former Wildcat defensive end Josh Allen who now plays for the NFL’s  Jacksonville Jaguars that helped convince Kinnard into staying one more year despite receiving feedback he would be a probably second or third-round selection.

Allen also contemplated the same decision at UK and ultimately too chose to return and that bumped him from round 2 or 3 up to the No. 7 pick in the 2018 draft.

Kinard explained his reasoning in electing to return.

"“I know personally I have all the confidence in the world in my abilities and how I can play, but sitting down and talking to Josh on the phone, it just made me really sit back and think. This last month was just very stressful, trying to make this decision, but after talking with Josh and understanding where he came from and what he went through, this was probably the best decision for me and my family. I want to be able to go to the NFL like everybody else. I’m so close but I know there’s some things I gotta work on to make sure I stay in the NFL for a long time. I’m going to come back, work on myself, and better my team.”"

He joins fellow reshift junior safety Yusuf Corker, DE Josh Paschal, and LB DeAndre Square in coming back. Paschal holds a special place with the fan base as do the fans with him through his battle with cancer. It is only fitting that he gets another year for that love to exude.

Seniors that normally would have fulfilled their eligibility but will be back thanks to the free year include WR Josh Ali, OG Luke Fortner, Special Teams stud Zach Johnson, DB Quandre Mosely, TE Justin Rigg & S Davonte Robinson.

Corker made it known through his Twitter account that he has a mission to fulfill.

"“I’m excited to announce that I’m coming back for the 2021 season! One of my main goals is to graduate in the spring with a degree in economics. I also feel like another year with this coaching staff and our strength coaches will elevate my game and football IQ even higher. I’m ready to get to work with my brothers. Let’s Go Big Blue”"

What once seemed like the Big Blue Wall offensive wall would need rebuilding next year was suddenly solidified with the announced returns to go with strong players stepping up to fill a few slots that won’t return.

Those include C Drake Jackson and LT Landon Young who both expect to hear their name called in the upcoming NFL draft. Quarterback Terry Wilson announced late Monday that he had entered the transfer portal.

The offensive line would currently seem to look like this with LT Kinnard, LG Kenneth Horsey, C Quintin Wilson, RG Fortner, and RT Naasir Watkins.

That should be welcome news to new offensive coordinator Liam Cohen and offensive line coach Eric Wolford who will take all the help in settling in and installing their offenses.

Deciding to also forgo another year on the defensive side of the ball includes Quinton Bohanna and Brandin Echols.

Kentucky has a very favorable 2021 schedule with home games against Louisiana Monore, New Mexico State, Chattanooga, Florida, LSU, Tennessee, and Missouri. They are at Louisville, Georgia, South Carolina, and Mississippi State.