College football can’t be as easy as Dane Key is making it look. Can it?

After his acrobatic, 55-yard touchdown catch in “The Swamp” ignited Kentucky’s SEC road victory over then-No. 12 Florida, Dane Key had to try to tame his cell phone.

“My phone was blowing up,” the former Frederick Douglass High School star said. “I didn’t even want to get on my phone.”

If you’ve ever wondered how many texts one gets when one makes the most spectacular play in ESPN’s featured, Saturday night SEC football game, Key allows that 300 is a pretty good guess.

“Close to that,” Key said, smiling.

Key’s performance in No. 9 Kentucky’s workmanlike 31-0 victory over FCS foe Youngstown State before a sun-drenched Kroger Field crowd of 59,308 will likely not cause additional cell-phone pyrotechnics. But it was pretty darned impressive in its own right.

Continuing one of the better three-game starts to a college career of any Kentucky Wildcats football freshman in recent memory, the 6-foot-3, 194-pound Key caught a team-high six passes for a team-best 90 yards and a touchdown.

Key not only has now caught a TD pass in his first three college games, he has made an impressive touchdown reception in each contest.

“We like guys that score touchdowns,” Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said after running his school-record career wins total to 62 with a victory over his hometown university. “(Key’s) a good player. He’s getting better. We’ve got a lot of confidence in him.”

Key’s touchdown catch against the plucky Penguins of Youngstown State was from only 3 yards out. But it came after the UK freshman executed a clever pass route, first breaking toward the sideline, only to then turn sharply back toward the middle of the field.

Kentucky wide receiver Dane Key catches a second-quarter touchdown on Saturday. The freshman from Frederick Douglass High School in Lexington has a TD reception in every game this season.
Kentucky wide receiver Dane Key catches a second-quarter touchdown on Saturday. The freshman from Frederick Douglass High School in Lexington has a TD reception in every game this season.

That followed the leaping grab, from 55 yards out under heavy coverage, for a score Key made in Gainesville.

Which came after he caught a bullet off the right hand of the howitzer-armed Will Levis for a 1-yard TD in the season-opening win over Miami (Ohio). That one was one of the more impressive “hands” catches you’ll ever see.

Through three games, the son of ex-UK linebacker Donte Key is tied with Virginia Tech transfer Tayvion Robinson for the UK team lead in catches with 13. Dane Key is the Wildcats leader by himself in TD receptions (three) and receiving yards (226).

Already, Key has tied Air Raid-era wideouts Derek Abney (2000) and Tommy Cook (2001) for the UK single-season TD reception record for a freshman. The last Kentucky player of any grade to catch a touchdown pass in each of a season’s first three games was La’Rod King in 2011.

Of course, three games is not a season — but it is one-fourth of one. Starting out in NCAA Division I football is not supposed to be nearly as easy as Key is making it look.

“I am not surprised,” Key said of his early-career success. Pointing out that he enrolled at the University of Kentucky a semester early in January, Key said, “It’s been so long since I’ve been here, I put in a lot of preparation with the other guys. We have a great defense (at UK). Going against those guys every day can only help me.”

Stoops, recruiting ace Vince Marrow and the Kentucky staff kept Key in Lexington by winning out in an intense recruiting battle that included South Carolina, Michigan and Oregon, among others.

Levis said he knew quickly that Key was going to be a Kentucky starter as a true freshman. “I think he had established himself as a starter after just a week of spring ball,” the UK QB said. “Just how he carried himself. How he was able to take teaching onto the field and letting his natural ability to go catch balls and make plays and run with it.”

Key’s early productivity is more impressive, Levis said, because he is not a speed burner in the mold of another UK freshman wideout, Barion Brown (off to his own stellar start, by the way, with nine catches for 99 yards).

“Dane’s not the fastest guy,” Levis said. “He’s not going to run by anybody. (His success is) a testament to his ability to be so meticulous with his routes and really know the purpose of what he’s trying to get done.”

Levis compares Key to New Orleans Saints wideout Michael Thomas. For his part, Key says ex-Alabama Crimson Tide and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Julio Jones is who he tries to model.

“I like watching him,” Key said of the 6-foot-3 Jones. “He’s a pretty big receiver and I consider myself a big receiver. When I watch him, I like to try to do some things he does.”

Key’s one miscue against Youngstown State came when he fumbled after a 14-yard reception from Levis on UK’s final drive of the first half. Fortunately for Key, teammate Jordan Dingle bailed him out by recovering the ball. That sustained what became the touchdown drive that put UK ahead 21-0 only 20 seconds before halftime.

“I was really happy,” Key said of Dingle’s recovery. “I had to apologize to everybody.”

As defenses prioritize stopping him, the task for Key moving forward is to continue to be consistent. “I really just have to stay focused in practice and locked in with preparation,” he said.

As challenges go, continuing to vex college defenses figures to be only slightly more difficult than navigating some 300 text messages after starring in an upset at Florida.

“It’s the little things that matter,” Dane Key said. “I tried to get back to everybody who texted me, just to say thank you.”