10 biggest questions I have as Kentucky enters fall camp
With college football’s regular season creeping closer by the day, it’s time for fall practice — and time to start answering all the questions still lingering. Kentucky’s looking for a 6th consecutive bowl appearance (which the program has never accomplished), but there are plenty of questions to be answered. Here are 10 big ones, and an early shot at the answers.
1. Who’s the QB?
Many believed Penn State transfer Will Levis was all but a shoo-in for the starting job. But word around the campfire is that sophomore Joey Gatewood had a very sharp spring. Freshman Beau Allen appears to be in third place of this group, but Mark Stoops and Co. have indicated that the job is still very much open. Coming into the spring, my guess would have been 80/20 Levis. Now, it feels much closer to 50/50, with the longer the competition goes, the more likely that Gatewood sees more time. Levis might be the intended QB, but he’ll have to earn it. The guess is still that he does, but it’s much less certain than it seemed.
2. How will Smoke be used?
Chris Rodriguez will be Kentucky’s starter at running back, where his 785 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns would have likely given UK a 5th consecutive season with a 1,000-yard rusher had COVID not shortened UK’s season by a couple of games. But Kavosiey Smoke is a viable option behind him, albeit one who struggled in 2020, with just 229 rushing yards (down from 616 in 2019). Smoke will probably be the 3rd-down back, as new coordinator Liam Coen loves his pass-catching skills. Look for Smoke to get 10-ish carries a game, catch 3-5 passes, and maybe even line up in the slot at times.
3. Who’s going to catch the ball (Aside from Ali and Robinson)?
If Kentucky’s going to pass more — and it will — somebody has to catch it. Senior Josh Ali is fairly proven and Nebraska transfer Wan’Dale Robinson is a known quality. Outside of them? Well, the loss of receiver/tight end Keaton Upshaw to start the season hurts, but there are other guys. Michigan State transfer Tre’von Morgan has the size (6-6) to be another outside playmaker. Speedy Mike Drennen didn’t play much last year, but he could be another Robinson-type burner. Senior Justin Rigg will catch many of the passes that would have gone to Upshaw. The coaches are also high on freshman Chauncey Magwood.
4. Is center sorted out?
For those with long memories, Kentucky’s 2017 struggles with snaps from center are not a pleasant thought. While UK had plenty of experienced linemen that year, they struggled with getting a center who could consistently get his snaps back to the quarterback. With the graduation of Drake Jackson, could UK be in the same situation again? Probably not, as veteran guard Luke Fortner, who has played in 43 games at UK, including starting for the past 2 seasons, will make the move to center. It’s not impossible that Fortner could struggle with a few snapping yips, but the position will be in battle-tested hands and should be fine.
5. Will the sacks come back?
UK’s sack totals for the past 4 years are a little astoninhing: 30, 38, 33, and last season, 14. Granted, 2 fewer games were played than the other seasons, and 2 more games were played against SEC competition. But Kentucky has to do better than 1.3 sacks per game, or its secondary will struggle. There’s no reason UK can’t get back into the 25-30 sack range, even without a Josh Allen-type. Josh Paschal up front and Jordan Wright off the edge are likely to contribute 5-7 sacks each, and with some of the inside guys making plays, UK should be better on the pass rush, if not quite back to Josh Allen’s days.
6. How does Jacquez Jones fit in?
Very, very well. D’Eryk Jackson was having a nice spring and probably playing his way into the starting middle linebacker job. But when he went down with an injury, Kentucky looked stuck. The plan might have been to move DeAndre Square to the middle and work in somebody new on the outside. Or to trust a fairly inexperienced player in the middle and leave Square outside. But instead, they grabbed Ole Miss’s leading tackler from a season ago. Jones has the experience and size to play in the middle. He might come off the field sometimes in dime or nickel situations, but grabbing him at the 11th hour answered many of the questions about Kentucky’s linebackers — and basically with an exclamation mark.
7. Who fills in at the corner spots?
Kelvin Joseph and Brandin Echols were NFL Draft picks, which leaves UK needing a pair of new corners. Returnee Vito Tisdale is in the mix, although UK will likely use him at nickel rather than as a pure corner. Tisdale is big and thick enough to play safety. Cedrick Dort is a likely starter at one spot. Dort started 12 games in 2019, but really only spelled the other corners last season, with 10 tackles and 3 starts. The other corner spot is open, but the coaches have liked Carrington Valentine. He saw plenty of time in the Gator Bowl, after Joseph had opted out and Dort was unavailable, and while the results weren’t always great, the coaches are high on him. Quandre Mosely is a former JUCO guy who will definitely be in the mix, but the guess here would be Dort and Valentine.
8. Will the defense post better results in 2021?
Probably it will. Granted, much of the statistical issues with UK’s defense come down to a 63-3 loss at Alabama when UK was decimated by COVID quarantines and gave up 509 yards and those 63 points. In 2018 and 2019, UK allowed just 16.8 and 19.3 points per game defensively, and they did so by allowing just 338 and 325 yards per game in those two seasons. In 2020, those numbers jumped to 25.9 points per game and 381 yards per game. Again, Josh Allen is not walking through the door. Without a dominant pass rusher, UK might not go back to 2018 levels, but 2021 could well end up with around 20 points and 350 yards per game … and given the projected uptick in offense, that might be enough to help UK approach the heights of 2018’s 10-3 season.
9. How is the kicking situation?
Anytime you have a brand new specialist, there’s a little holding your breath until the opener is complete. New punter Wilson Berry has a great pedigree (see his brother, Jordan, with the Steelers), but he’s never played college football. Former walk-on Matt Ruffolo seems to have locked down place kicking (despite a costly PAT miss against Ole Miss, he was very solid otherwise in 2020). Chance Poore handled kickoffs last season, and will likely do so again. There’s a little bit of a fear factor on Berry, but otherwise, this group should be experienced and steady.
10. Which true freshmen will play?
Big-time OL recruit Jager Burton will be too good to keep off the field. The loss of Upshaw means that tight end Jordan Dingle will get a long look this fall. Given UK’s need for wide receivers, Chauncey Magwood is probably going to be in the rotation. Less certain are high ceiling guys like Dekel Crowdus and Christian Lewis, who weren’t in for the spring and thus may well sit. Linebacker Trevin Wallace would have been all but certain to play until Jones came on board, but now he might redshirt. We could be back to the days when few true freshmen see action under Stoops.