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Wide receiver play must step up for Kentucky heading into SEC play

A slow start for Kentucky’s top receivers could spell bad news for the Wildcats season if things don't change in a hurry.

NCAA Football: Akron at Kentucky Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

As the Kentucky Wildcats start 3-0 for the third consecutive season, the offense is much improved from the last few games of the 2022 season.

However, there is one glaring omission from the much-improved, revamped offense under new OC Liam Coen — a pair of sophomore slumps taking place for wideouts Barion Brown and Dane Key.

Dane Key started the season on a high note against Ball State, ending with six receptions for 95 and a touchdown. However, Key has caught just three passes since Week 1, letting more than that slip through his hands. In Saturday’s game against Akron, there was even a miscommunication between Key and Leary that led to an interception instead of a sure-fire first down.

“It’s just straight execution. We’re running a 15-yard comeback, we run a 15-yard comeback at 15 yards, we throw that ball on three steps, one hitch timing to the outside pad. It wasn’t like that. It didn’t get executed that way,” said Liam Coen after the game.

“It was the right place to go with the football at the right time. The right place. He was wide open, and we didn’t execute it.”

And, Barion Brown, who set the freshman receiving record for yardage last year, has just 11 catches for 109 yards and a touchdown so far in 2023; Brown’s 109 yards are actually 10 more through three games than he had last year prior to his four-catch, 102-yard and two TD game against Northern Illinois last season.

Still, against Akron, Brown only had two catches for 19 yards.

“At the end of the day, we have to execute better, and then things will happen. If we block and don’t take a sack on a play-action pass, then Barion will be catching the 20-yard out cut. We gave up a sack. We throw and catch to Dane two times. We miss him,” said Coen.

“Whatever it is chemistry-wise, we’re not hitting them. We’re not making that play. If we execute better, the ball will find many more targets, and we’ll find everybody’s hands.”

The receiver room as a whole isn’t all struggling, though. Tayvion Robinson, the fifth-year transfer out of Virginia Tech, is currently pacing the Wildcats with 14 catches for 260 yards and three touchdowns, exploding for 136 and 86 yards, respectively, in Weeks 1 and 2.

Leary seems to be leaning on the more seasoned Robinson through three weeks of play, gaining over half of his 2022 receiving yardage in three games (497 yards last season).

Going into SEC play, Brown and Key are the keys, no pun intended, to a successful season for both Kentucky and Leary. If the issues can be fixed between those three, the Wildcats have just as good a chance as any to potentially make it to Atlanta.

It starts with Vanderbilt.