‘Only’ four Cats chosen in NFL Draft? Welcome to UK football’s raised expectations

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When ex-Kentucky standouts Wan’Dale Robinson (No. 43), Josh Paschal (No. 46) and Luke Fortner (No. 65) heard their names called in the 2022 NFL Draft, it gave Mark Stoops’ program three of the top 65 picks.

You have to go all the way back to the 1966 NFL Draft to find the last time UK produced as many as three of the top 65 selections — Sam Ball (No. 15), Bob Windsor (No. 26), Rick Norton (No. 28) and Rick Kestner (No. 47).

With Darian Kinnard (No. 145) added in, Kentucky had four total selections in the 2022 NFL Draft. The four picks ties 2008 for the third-most selections for UK in a single NFL Draft in the 21st century.

Yet even with those positive metrics, Kentucky’s showing in the 2022 NFL Draft seemed to elicit a mild sense of fan disappointment. When you had realistic expectations of having six players drafted and hopes for seven, four just felt a little flat.

Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops saw four of his former players chosen in the 2022 NFL Draft, with three picked in the top 65 picks.
Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops saw four of his former players chosen in the 2022 NFL Draft, with three picked in the top 65 picks.

Many of the seven-round 2022 NFL mock drafts had Kentucky safety Yusuf Corker and defensive lineman Marquan McCall going in the late rounds. There were aspirations for offensive tackle Dare Rosenthal, the LSU transfer, to hear his name called, too.

Instead, all three went undrafted. If they are to draw NFL paychecks in 2022, that trio will have to earn them by making teams via the challenging route of free agency.

Corker going unselected was the biggest surprise.

For three seasons as a Kentucky starter, the 6-foot, 197-pound McDonough, Ga., product brought his lunch pail and hard hat to work daily and was one of the most physical safeties in the SEC.

As a senior this past fall, Corker recorded 82 tackles and was credited with eight passes defended.

According to “the post-draft scuttlebutt,” NFL teams had concerns about Corker’s ability to make plays on the ball. He had only three career pass interceptions, and none as a senior.

Adding to the ambivalence among Kentucky backers over the 2022 NFL Draft was the relative success of at least three teams that are very much on the Big Blue Nation’s radar.

Reigning national champion Georgia, the team UK will have to find its way past if the Wildcats are ever to wear the SEC East Division crown, set the record for most players ever selected in a seven-round NFL Draft with a whopping 15.

Cincinnati, a program whose rise complicates Kentucky’s recruiting picture in in the crucial neighboring state of Ohio, had a robust nine selections.

Tennessee, a rival in whose home state UK has recently put substantial recruiting emphasis, had five players drafted — the most for the Rocky Toppers since 2017 (six).

To the chagrin of the BBN, all three figure to get a recruiting boost from their 2022 NFL Draft successes.

For UK, the best part of this year’s draft came Friday night when Robinson (No. 43), Paschal (No. 46) and Fortner (No. 65) were all chosen in a relatively compressed time frame that called positive attention to the Wildcats.

“Kentucky rapidly becoming a program like Iowa, Utah and Wisconsin — outperforming the recruiting rankings on NFL Draft weekend,” tweeted ESPN college football writer Adam Rittenberg. “Really good player development by Mark Stoops and his staff.”

In the big picture, the 2022 NFL Draft continued some positive overall trends for UK football.

For the fourth straight draft, the Cats led the state of Kentucky in picks produced. UK (four) doubled up Western Kentucky (2) while Louisville became one of only nine Power Five conference programs that had no player drafted in 2022.

It might not seem a big deal for an SEC program to lead its state in NFL Draft choices — except UK failed to do that for five straight years from 2014 through 2018.

Now, since 2019, the in-state tally of NFL Draft picks produced stands Kentucky 17, Louisville 3, Western Kentucky 2.

Meanwhile, Kentucky’s four selections in the 2022 NFL Draft tied for sixth among SEC teams. Only Georgia (15), LSU (10), Alabama (seven), Mississippi (six) and UT (five) had more players drafted.

Over the past four NFL Drafts combined, only five SEC programs — Georgia (38), Alabama (36), LSU (34), Florida (23) and Texas A&M (18) — have had more players taken than Kentucky (17).

UK’s performance over the past four drafts re-emphasizes that Stoops has elevated Wildcats football from its traditional dwelling point near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference into a mid-tier SEC program worthy of respect.

The goal for Stoops and troops is to keep climbing the conference pecking order, of course.

For now, the fact that there could be fan ambivalence about an NFL Draft in which four UK players were selected is a testament to how much Mark Stoops has raised the bar of expectations for Kentucky football.