Better or worse? Previewing Kentucky's offense in 2021
Editor’s note: SDS’ annual preview of the SEC East continues today with Kentucky’s offense. Coming Thursday: Missouri.
While the scrambled 2020 season emerged as a backhanded sort of success for Kentucky, the Wildcats are looking for significant improvement in 2021. Playing an SEC-only schedule left the Wildcats at 4-6, although the Gator Bowl win over NC State did improve the final outlook. Kentucky won its 3rd consecutive bowl game and appeared in its 5th consecutive postseason matchup.
But when Kentucky looks for places to improve in 2021, many of the issues that require tinkering are on offense. Gone is coordinator Eddie Gran, replaced by OC Liam Coen, formerly of the L.A. Rams. If Kentucky is going to improve, the Wildcats probably want to do better than 12th in the SEC in scoring (21.8 PPG last year), 14th in yardage (318 yards per game) and 14th in passing (121 yards per game, 66 yards behind 13th place South Carolina). The good news is that the pieces are there for improvement.
Penn State QB transfer Will Levis will challenge returnees Joey Gatewood and Beau Allen. The two returnees were solid in the spring, but without a spring game, details on either are lacking. Nebraska WR transfer Wan’Dale Robinson will see the field immediately and should nicely complement returning pass-catcher Josh Ali. While Kentucky did lose a few standouts in the trenches, the Wildcats return a couple of experienced running backs. How will it all shake down in 2021? Let’s take a look:
Passing game: Better
So this isn’t exactly going out on a limb. In the past 2 seasons, UK passed for 114 and 121 yards per game,respectively. Granted, in 2019, much of the season was spent with wide receiver Lynn Bowden at quarterback. The Wildcats had no such excuse in 2020, when Terry Wilson started the opener at Auburn playing well. He threw a first-half-ending pick from the Auburn 2 and never seemed to regain his confidence after that.
Wilson has transferred to New Mexico, and UK’s passing offense rests on some combination of Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood, (17-for-35 for 109 yards and an interception in 1 start and assorted relief last year), 2nd-year QB Beau Allen (3-for-7 for 40 yards) and Will Levis, formerly from Penn State. Levis has 3 years of eligibility, and in parts of 2 seasons at Penn State, he was 61-for-102 passing for 644 yards, 3 touchdowns and a pair of interceptions. He also rushed for 473 yards and 6 touchdowns. He’ll likely pass more and run less for Coen, whose pro-style attack should provide much-needed offensive balance.
Kentucky first kept senior Josh Ali for another season. Ali snagged 54 of Kentucky’s 145 receptions. Ali is comfortable on the outside, stretching the defense. The Wildcats then added Wan’Dale Robinson, who caught 91 passes for 914 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2 season at Nebraska. Robinson also rushed for 580 yards and 4 scores in Lincoln, but Kentucky is likely to deploy him as a speedy slot receiver rather than an all-purpose back.
UK also has strong weapons at tight end, where Keaton Upshaw caught 16 passes for 198 yards and 3 touchdowns. Returning senior Justin Rigg is a stronger blocker than Upshaw but also caught the ball well — 12 receptions for 145 yards and a score in 2020. Don’t be surprised if Kentucky implements single-back, 2-tight-end sets to get both players on the field frequently.
So Kentucky will be better passing. How much better?
In 2 seasons with QB Stephen Johnson, the Wildcats averaged 186 and 188 passing yards. That’s a reasonable threshhold of minimal competence that UK should reach in 2021. A little more ambitious (but still reachable) would be 2015, when Patrick Towles led UK to 209 passing yards per game. Those 3 teams averaged between 25 and 30 points per game, and that type of improvement would likely result from even a middle-of-the-SEC level of passing.
The verdict is better.
Running game: Worse
The other side of the coin is that Kentucky — in a more balanced system — likely won’t lead the SEC in rushing (2019, 279 yards per game, 6.3 yards per carry) or even finish near the top (2020, 197 yards per game, 3rd in the SEC, 5.0 yards per carry). But those 2020 numbers might not drop a ton. In the past 6 years, Stoops’ ground games have averaged at least 162 yards per game or 4.3 yards per carry. That said, UK might not have 40 rushing attempts game, as it did last season.
Kentucky can improve its efficiency on the ground. Junior RB Christopher Rodriguez is a bowling ball of a back who picked up where former Wildcat Benny Snell left off — 785 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2020, despite missing 2 games. Junior Kavosiey Smoke has showed big-play ability with 890 career rushing yards and 8 touchdowns (as well as 5.9 yards per carry). But UK was solidly in the lower half of the league in 3rd- and 4th-down conversions, and only 11-of-29 red-zone possessions ended in rushing touchdowns. The threat of a competent passing game can only help those areas.
Another issue for UK will be the loss of senior linemen Drake Jackson and Landon Young. Replacing 2 experienced veteran linemen with a nasty streak will not be easy. While Kentucky’s returning talent is long on experience and numbers, it’s smart to expect a dip in productivity early as UK gets used to life without 2 guys who were fixtures on the offensive line.
For Kentucky’s running game, the final key will be just doing more with less. There won’t be as many carries, and likely won’t be as many yards. But if Rodriguez and company can grind out 3rd-and-shorts or 4th-and-shorts in 2021, the decrease in yardage will probably be offset by an increase in points and, ideally, in wins.
The verdict is worse (but hopefully, more productive in spots).
Kicking game: Better
Senior walk-on Matt Ruffolo decided to return, and he should be solid next season. Ruffolo was 12-for-14 on field goals in 2020 and went 22-for-23 on extra points. Unfortunately, the 1 miss was a costly overtime shank against Ole Miss and Kentucky lost that game. After that, Ruffolo was exemplary. His only misses were from outside 40 yards, and he was 10-for-10 from inside that range. Reserve Chance Poore was 1-for-1 on field-goal tries and also did a good job on kickoffs, netting 27 touchbacks on his 50 kicks.
The return game was lacking a spark, particularly compared with the days when Bowden could contribute a big return. Walk-on Zach Johnson averaged 20.8 yards per return but didn’t break one longer than 33 yards. Kentucky was toward the bottom of the SEC in return yards, but the Wildcats might roll the dice a little more in 2021 with a few more athletes in the fold. Running backs Travis Tisdale or JuTahn McClain are candidates to possibly see more time.
Ruffolo seems unlikely to miss key kicks factoring in more experience, and the return game is likely to improve. Overall, it’s enough to say the kicking game will be better.
For the past 3 seasons, Kentucky has largely won games with defense and a rushing attack. If Kentucky can add a reasonably good passing game, look for another touchdown or so per game in scoring and being competitive in the SEC East race (at least behind Georgia). With Coen and a new scheme as well as new talents like Levis and Robinson, there’s reason for optimism.