Kentucky football: 5 biggest areas of concern ... and possible solutions
With Signing Day over and spring practice about to roll, fans are looking with a discerning eye at the 2022 versions of their favorite teams. At Kentucky, recent success has been historically unusual. Repeating the 10-win season that has happened twice in the last 4 years will be a feat. And while Kentucky has plenty of solid returning parts, there are also areas of concern. But then again, every area of concern is a potential area for solutions, and we’ll look at 5 potential pitfalls for UK football, and the likely solutions.
1. A new offensive coordinator
Liam Coen fared well in his single season in Lexington — so well that the L.A. Rams snagged him back to mastermind (or help mastermind, let’s be honest) their offense. For a Kentucky team that had tended to view offense as one of the weaker components of its attack, that could be bad news. Early rumors for the next OC seem to center around young NFL assistants, but whoever it is, Coen’s impressive 2021 season will be hard to follow.
The solution? Trust in Mark Stoops. Whether it was Coen, Brad White or a wealth of other assistants, Stoops has done almost as good a job of scouting coaching talent as he has playing talent. Admittedly, the new offensive coordinator has big shoes to fill. But with a more complete bevy of receivers and experienced returning running back and quarterback starters, the new coordinator should be fine. Breath deep and trust, UK fans. It has worked well so far.
2. Replacing much of the offensive line
Kentucky lost veteran offensive line starters Darian Kinnard and Luke Fortner, as well as LSU transfer/1-and-done tackle Dare Rosenthal. Kentucky does return All-SEC candidate Eli Cox and got a boost from the return of extra-year veteran Austin Dotson. Still, Kentucky didn’t show great offensive line depth in 2021 and will have to work some new players in for 2022.
The solution? Another grad transfer and some young guys. Auburn starter/transfer Tashawn Manning figures to lock down 1 spot. Veterans Jeremy Flax and Deondre Buford apparently are the leaders for the other spots. But don’t sleep on some of the talented young linemen UK has compiled, whether it be redshirt freshman Jager Burton or even massive newcomer Kiyaunta Goodwin. Before last season, Kentucky tended to rotate 7-8 linemen in a relatively even rotation. The Wildcats could well return to that environment … and while the faces may be somewhat new, they’re a talented and deep group.
3. Replacing a legend
Nebraska receiver transfer Wan’Dale Robinson certainly made his impact in 2021 with perhaps the best single season in UK football history. His 104 catches for 1,334 yards will not be easy to replace, to say the least. Not many teams in the nation can produce a single player to post those kind of stats.
The solution? Strength in numbers. The good news for UK is that while a single receiver won’t touch Robinson’s numbers, 2 or 3 can. Robinson and oft-injured teammate Josh Ali basically were UK’s passing game. After Robinson’s 104 catches and Ali’s 41 grabs, UK’s next-most prolific receiver was tight end Justin Rigg, who caught 20 passes — about 1.5 a game.
No, there may not be another Wan’Dale on the roster. But UK can get some production from Virginia Tech transfer Tayvion Robinson, who led the Hokies in receiving in 2021. Ditto for Alabama transfer Javon Baker. Those 2 could plausibly combine to equal Robinson’s production. That’s not to mention all the new talent, like in-state product Dane Key, whose penchant for SportsCenter-type catches should translate to the college game. Or 4-star Barion Brown, a Tennessee product who shined in the All-American Bowl week practices. One player won’t replace Wan’Dale. But several working together could even be an improvement.
4. Fixing the secondary
Kentucky’s defense was sharp last year– except for a pair of midseason games when Misssissippi State’s and Tennessee’s passing games were basically “throwing against air” when playing UK. The 2 schools combined to go 51-for-59 for 660 yards and 5 touchdowns. And from that Kentucky secondary, take out corner Cedrick Dort Jr., safety Yusuf Corker and nickle Davonte Robinson, all of whom finished their eligibility.
The solution? A healthy Vito and more help from the linebackers. Nickle Vito Tisdale probably would have played more in 2021 had an offseason legal fracas not held him out for nearly half the season. Tisdale has NFL talent, but he has to improve his discipline and focus. Kentucky’s corners would greatly benefit from another grad transfer, but in lieu of that, at least UK returns a ton of linebackers. Maybe with Jacquez Jones and DeAndre Square back, UK will be able to stay in a base defense more and utilize 4 rather than 5 DBs on most downs — which would help the situation. Keeping super senior safety Tyrell Ajian was a big break, also.
5. The turnover struggle
Kentucky’s winning season in 2021 was almost bizarre in light of its constant turnover problems. UK ended up 125th in turnover margin, because the Wildcats both gave up a ton of turnovers (23, tying them for 115th in FBS) and forced so few (12, tied for 113th in FBS). The other teams hanging around -11 in turnover margin certainly weren’t winning 10 games.
The solution? Maybe not even a problem. A little stick-’em for red-zone fumble-prone Chris Rodriguez Jr. would be nice, but much of the turnover situation is luck. The ball bounces one way or the other way. Stoops’ teams haven’t had systemic turnover issues — in fact, Kentucky was +10 in 2020. A more comfortable Will Levis will probably chuck a few fewer interceptions, and the random nature of bounces should even this one out.