There was a time when it was difficult to convince a quality football player to come to the University of Kentucky.

Now they don't want to leave.

The last few days, social media has been filled with posts from current Wildcats — all with options to depart — announcing they will remain current Wildcats.

Quarterback Will Levis. He's coming back. Running back Chris Rodriguez. He's coming back. Linebackers DeAndre Square and Jacquez Jones. They're coming back. Outside linebacker Jordan Wright. He's coming back.

True, star wide receiver Wan'Dale Robinson is taking his considerable talents and toughness to the NFL. Offensive tackle Darian Kinnard is a potential first-round pick in the 2022 draft. Fellow offensive tackle Dare Rosenthal may also give the professional ranks a shot. Safety Yusuf Corker announced he has played his final game as a Wildcat. Josh Paschal's skill and leadership will not be easily replaced. Ditto for center Luke Fortner.

Still, when you combine the talent returning for 2022 with some significant incoming transfers and a top-10 recruiting class, it's easy to see why Mark Stoops' club is included in many of those way-too-early Top 25 rankings for the next college football season.

Brandon Marcello of 247Sports has Kentucky No. 15 in his preseason projections for the fall. Stewart Mandel of The Athletic has the Cats at No. 21 on his list. ESPN's Mark Schlabach has Kentucky in the same spot, as does R.J. Young of Fox Sports and Pat Forde of Sports Illustrated.

So what's the deal? Why have certain Cats central to the cause decided to stick around? Why have some you thought would be ready to make a career move, instead pledged one more year in blue and white?

Take Rodriguez, for example. The 5-foot-11, 224-pounder rushed for 1,379 yards last season. He's averaged over 6 yards per carry each of the last two seasons. And the book on college running backs is they need to hit the pro ranks as soon as possible, before too many miles accumulate on the tires. Yet, C-Rod is returning.

Take Jones, who transferred to UK from Ole Miss before the 2021 campaign and has now signed on to be a super senior. Take Square, who posted "ONE . . . MORE . . . RIDE!!!!! Let's make it count" to his social media accounts. He too will be a super senior in 2022.

The guess here is their reasons for remaining are similar to the reasons why the Cats have had just one opt-out (Kelvin Joseph in 2020) over the past four bowls. Stoops has built a culture his players want to be a part of, not just for themselves but for their teammates.

One thing I've noticed about Stoops' troops: They love football. They eat, breathe and sleep football. They love to practice, to play, to win. They just love the sport. It's the reason why an injured Square limped back on the field to make the game-sealing interception in Kentucky's 20-17 win over Iowa in the Citrus Bowl. That's the same DeAndre Square who needed crutches to get to the podium for the postgame press conference.

There are big shoes still to fill

We're a long way from September, of course. And while the additions of transfers Tayvion Robinson (wide receiver) from Virginia Tech, Tashawn Manning (offensive lineman) from Auburn and Darrion Henry-Young (defensive lineman) from Ohio State will help, there are some big shoes to fill.

Rosenthal's decision will be important. No doubt Stoops is on the lookout for a transfer or two to help in the secondary. And, as former Georgia coach Jim Donnan was fond of saying, "It's not like Florida and Tennessee and all those other teams have stopped recruiting." The defending national champion Georgia Bulldogs come to Kroger Field on Nov. 19. Mark your calendar.

So often, however, to win next season it helps to win the offseason. Given the "ONE . . . MORE . . . RIDE" mentality of some key pieces, the Cats are off to a good start.

2022 UK schedule

Home games in all capital letters

Sept. 3: MIAMI (OHIO)

Sept. 10: At Florida

Sept. 17: YOUNGSTOWN STATE

Sept. 24: NORTHERN ILLINOIS

Oct. 1: At Mississippi

Oct. 8: SOUTH CAROLINA

Oct. 15: MISSISSIPPI STATE

Oct. 29: At Tennessee

Nov. 5: At Missouri

Nov. 12: VANDERBILT

Nov. 19: GEORGIA

Nov. 26: LOUISVILLE


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