UK wideout duo working hard to avoid sophomore slump

Published 3:30 pm Thursday, September 28, 2023

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They were rock stars as freshmen when they became two of the best receivers in the Southeastern Conference and drew praise from coaches, teammates, opponents and former Kentucky standouts.

A lot was expected from sophomore receivers Barion Brown and Dane Key this season, but when Liam Coen returned to UK as offensive coordinator, he noted that both had to get much better at route running. They would not have Will Levis and his rocket arm to force the ball to them and defenses would also be much more focused on them from game one.

They have not been bad through UK’s first four games going into Saturday’s SEC home showdown with Florida. However, they have not been nearly as explosive as expected for an inconsistent UK offense.

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Brown had his best game of the year in last week’s win at Vanderbilt when he had four catches for 105 yards. He has 15 catches for 214 yards and one score this season after making a team-best 50 receptions for 628 yards — both UK freshman records — and four scores in 2022. He had ten catches for 145 yards and one score against eventual national champion Georgia in 2022.

Key had four catches for 58 yards and a score against Vanderbilt and now has 13 catches for 196 yards and two scores this season. He had a new UK freshman record for touchdown catches with six in 2022 and finished the season with 37 catches for 519 yards.

Coach Mark Stoops noted before the Vanderbilt game that the two sophomore receivers were not to blame for UK’s inconsistent offense but they were part of the problem.

“In the preseason, you’re talking about them, everybody’s talking about them. I talked about it with them, don’t believe all this (hype). You’re going into your sophomore (season), there is a reason people call it the sophomore slump,” Stoops said. “I don’t believe in that, I don’t at all.

“But I addressed it with them. Just because you had some success as a freshman maybe you’re not truly in tune to every aspect of the game. You have to continue to grow and get better. We try to preach that all the time. I think it does get hard with some young guys because they have some immediate success.

“They just need to understand the importance of staying with it, putting your head down and grinding it out and getting better. They are in certain aspects and then there’s other aspects, like most of our team, that need some improvement and needs the consistency.”

Both had dropped passes from quarterback Devin Leary that looked like catchable balls. Both have had their route running criticized despite Coen’s emphasis on being precise in what they are doing.

Stoops liked what both players did at Vanderbilt and hope it’s a sign of a lot more to come as UK plays Florida, Georgia, Missouri and Tennessee in its next four games — a lot more challenging stretch than what the Cats went through to open the season 4-0.

“It was good to see them get going. That last one was a big, explosive play by Barion that they (officials) reviewed and he got it in (bounds for a 55-yard gain). That was good to see because we hit a little rut of frustration there,” Stoops said.

“The nice thing: I think this team is unselfish. But as a competitor, people get frustrated. It’s not all me, me, me, but as a group, you get frustrated. Maybe it’s a tipped pass, maybe it’s a drop, maybe it’s a pressure — there’s enough blame to go around and everybody needs to concentrate on themselves.”

Former UK all-SEC running back Anthony White anticipates seeing both Key and Brown running different routes against Florida than what UK has shown so far. He also said it might just be taking longer for the receivers and Leary to get in sync than initially anticipated.

Key made a brilliant fourth-quarter touchdown catch over Vanderbilt cornerback Martel Hight. After the catch, he tapped Hight on the head several times to perhaps celebrate finally making another big play. The gesture got him an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that both Stoops and recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow talked to him about on the sideline.

But Stoops, Marrow and Coen repeatedly have praised both sophomore receivers for their mentality and commitment to winning even if they have had some small missteps this season. Both sophomores want to win.

Key told Maggie Davis of WLEX-TV’s “BBN Tonight” that he figured he spent at least 12 hours per day with Brown.

“I am not joking,” he told Davis.

Brown said the two are always together at meetings and practice. They were even shown on the TV show playing ping pong together.

“They both want to be better and they will be better,” Coen said. “They are just sophomores and they are still refining their craft. We have a lot of games left to play and we need them to be the very best they can be and they get that and want that, too.”

Stoops said he’s noticed how hard both Brown and Key have been working to get better.

“They are both a little more detail-oriented,” the UK coach said after the Vanderbilt game. “They are great kids and want to compete and win. They are getting better and both of them took it to heart when we talked to them. We have shown them a lot of film and today they made strides at times