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Jordan Wright's Energy, Ability Verify his Value for Kentucky

Five days before game one of the season against Miami (OH), Kentucky's first official depth chart was released. There were two notable omissions, though one was the bigger story. 

Star running back Chris Rodriguez Jr was ruled "unavailable to play" stemming back to a DUI charge he pled guilty to in July, as well as another alleged "off-the-field" issue. The loss of Rodriguez to start the season was a massive story, as the senior was named a member of the Preseason All-SEC First Team and was widely considered as the glue to Kentucky's offense. 

Along with Rodriguez was super senior outside linebacker Jordan Wright, who was also announced as "unavailable to play", allegedly for the same "off-the-field" issue as his teammate. Both players were eventually named team captains by UK, though neither would see the field for the first game of the season. 

The loss of Wright didn't sting as bad in the eyes of Big Blue Nation. Kentucky carries one of the best linebacker cores in the nation, headlined by Jacquez Jones, DeAndre Square and J.J. Weaver, while the running back room was filled with unknown potential that wouldn't match the output of Rodriguez. 

Kentucky defeated Miami 37-13 without both players, then came the following Monday. Head coach Mark Stoops again spoke at his game-week press conference and an updated depth chart was released, but still no sign of Rodriguez or Wright. Stoops was unable to provide any update to either player's situation. 

The Wildcats turned their attention to game-prep for what would become its second win of the season against the then-No.12 Florida Gators. Rumors swirled about both player's potential availability, but nothing was concrete...until 48 hours before the game. 

Just one day before the Wildcats got on the plane to Gainesville, Kentucky Football released this via Twitter: 

Wright was cleared and ruled available to play and would make the trip back down to his home state of Florida for a crucial SEC East matchup. Big Blue Nation may have been hoping more for news regarding Rodriguez, but soon came to realize that without Wright, UK likely doesn't defeat the Gators in The Swamp. 

The Fort Lauderdale product collected six tackles (four solo) in Kentucky's 26-16 win, including two tackles-for-loss, a sack and what turned out to be a momentum-shifting interception. 

With Florida up by a touchdown, Kentucky was set to punt away, when the snap was sent over the head of Colin Goodfellow, forcing the punter to boot the ball behind UK's endzone for a safety, giving the Gators a nine-point lead and possession of the ball close to halftime. 

Florida started its next drive at its own 20-yard-line with just over four minutes remaining in the second quarter. On the third play of the drive, Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson moved to his right while being chased down by Wright. The Gator QB tried to swing his pass by the linebacker, but Wright had other ideas:

"When I saw how (Richardson) tried to throw it with a sidearm, I said I knew I had it but at first I thought I'd tipped it," Wright said about his interception after the win. "It felt good, because we were just talking about how we needed a turnover. I told coach 'ima get one,' because I had the strip sack but nobody recovered it, so I gotta make up for that."

Four plays later, Will Levis punched in Kentucky's second score of the night, giving the Wildcats life entering the second half. Momentum has always been a big part of Kentucky's rivalry with Florida, including the last time that the Cats visited Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. 

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In 2020, UF's Kadarius Toney returned a punt back 50 yards for a score just before halftime, giving the Gators a lead that they would never relinquish, eventually thumping Kentucky 34-10. Wright was on the sidelines for that play, so he knows all too well about how important one big play can be:

"We were just big on 'we can't let the momentum change,' because if we do, we know what happened last time, so just keeping us ahead and everybody's heads up...it means a lot," he said.

Making plays like his interception is only part of what Wright brings to this Kentucky group. Not having him on the field hurts the Wildcats not only because of his skill, but because of his energy. 

"He's a player for us, and I don't think there's any question," Stoops said of Wright. "We've seen him play for a while. He's not only a good football player, but he brings good energy."

Wright naturally brings that needed energy, but keeping him on the sidelines for the start of the season, along with a little help from the SEC Network's Roman Harper, meant there was much more motivation on the table. 

Harper called the Wildcats "soft" when predicting Florida to defeat Kentucky, giving the players, including Wright, that extra bit of juice for last Saturday's win.

"I wanted to bring (energy) a lot, people are calling us soft, since i've been here we've never been called soft, so I took that to the heart," Wright said. "So I said I made sure I came with the energy for 60 minutes straight so they can feel us and show em who's really soft."

The waiting game can take its toll on players when they aren't able to go out on the field and compete and do what they love. That wasn't the case for Wright, as he knew better days, like Saturday, were in store for him.

"I knew the storm was gonna pass so I wasn't too worried about it," he said about not being able to play at first. "I just took mental reps and worked with the scout teams against offense so you know, just stay in shape and keep my head on."

Wright's patience proved to be a virtue, as his contribution propelled Kentucky to a mammoth win in a hostile road environment. He has seen the growth of the Wildcats' program just as much as anyone who has been around during Stoops tenure, including the staunch 2018 defense that some consider to be the best in recent memory. With all due respect, Wright think's the 2022 defense may eclipse that raved-about group: 

"I feel like we're gonna be way better," he said. "We got a lot of vets and everybody's just communicating, and we're more player-led this year. So you know, everybody is standing on a team standard." 

That team standard seems to be a good one, as its led Kentucky to becoming the No. 9 team in the nation in the latest AP Poll. 

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