Kentucky football: 5 biggest holes to fill in 2021 starting lineup
Spring football is coming. And while Kentucky is on fairly solid ground, returning 7 offensive starters and 6 defensive starters from their Gator Bowl win, there’s still plenty of work to sort out in spring practice. In some cases, these position battles could go to the fall. But here are the 5 biggest holes Kentucky has to fill– and how they might fill them.
QB: Beau Allen (?) replacing Terry Wilson
The embattled Terry Wilson — all he did was (usually) win — has decided to move on from Lexington after a season when Kentucky’s passing game was by far the worst in the SEC. How much that had to do with Wilson is an open question, but under new offensive coordinator Liam Coen, the Wildcats will be looking for passing threats in 2021.
There’s now a trio of potential candidates. Freshman Beau Allen is probably the best fit for Coen’s offense. The pro-style passer went 3-for-7 for 40 yards in brief appearances last season. Sophomore Joey Gatewood had plenty of hype coming off a transfer from Auburn, but he struggled. Gatewood started against Georgia but never got untracked through the air, finishing the season 17-for-35 for 109 yards and an interception. He did add 62 yards rushing on 25 carries. Incoming transfer Will Levis from Penn State could see some time. In 2 years of spot duty at PSU, Levis went 61-for-102 passing, with 644 yards, 3 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, and an additional 473 rushing yards and 6 more touchdowns on the ground. PSU used Levis as a running QB, but his arm looks good enough to make him a factor in Lexington.
The current understanding is that Levis will graduate this spring from Penn State, and thus won’t be in Lexington for practice. The upside is that he should certainly be eligible in the fall, but it probably gives Allen and Gatewood an initial advantage. Allen will have a chance to grab the job in the spring, but if it goes to the fall, his advantage decreases. On the other hand, Gatewood gets forgotten because of an abysmal 2020 season, but nobody was looking like Tom Brady in Lexington. Allen is the early favorite, but any or all of the three could emerge.
OT: Jeremy Flax (?) replacing Landon Young
So here’s the rub: Kentucky lost 2 outstanding senior linemen, Landon Young (LT) and Drake Jackson (C). The best bet on how to replace each is with some shuffling. Kentucky’s top returning lineman, Darian Kinnard, is likely to shift to left tackle to take Young’s spot. All 3 of UK’s likely 2021 QB starters (see above) are right-handed, and thus the left tackle will be protecting their blind side. Kinnard was a right tackle, but when he slides to left tackle, his old spot becomes open.
Kentucky has a wealth of candidates for this job. The Wildcats redshirted some quality offensive linemen in 2020. For instance, John Young will end up in the battle for a 2021 spot. Young was a 4-star recruit from Louisville in 2020, and he has the physical skills to play — but maybe not immediately. On the other hand, JUCO tackle Jeremy Flax, who at 6-6, 356 pounds certainly passes the size test, saw a few snaps last year as a backup for UK and combines the skill set with a little more experience. Flax was a 4-star recruit as well, choosing UK over Auburn shortly before Signing Day. UK is also high on freshman Deondre Buford.
Kentucky’s outstanding OL play in recent years has been aided by the fact that the UK coaches aren’t slavish to a set starting 5. They don’t mind rotating 8 or so players. Don’t be surprised to see a couple of the guys mentioned above getting snaps, but Flax is probably the first guy up.
MLB: Jared Casey replacing Jamin Davis
Like the tackle spot, this is probably a rotational situation. First guess would be that outstanding returning LB DeAndre Square moves to the middle to replace Davis, who led UK in tackles in an All-SEC caliber 2020 season. If that happens, it’s Square’s OLB spot that has a vacancy. Either way, Casey stands likely to be one of the guys on the field.
A 4-star recruit from the class of 2019, Kentucky flipped Casey from Oregon and picked up a burst of recruiting momentum in nabbing the Louisville product. Casey had 20 tackles and a pair of tackles for loss in 2020 as a redshirt freshman. At 6-3, 220 pounds, he’s fast enough to cover the entire field and physical enough to lay a solid hit in run support.
Kentucky’s late signing of 4-star LB Trevin Wallace in the current class could also impact the situation. Wallace is apparently good enough to play right away, although at 210 pounds, he might be a little light to play the middle. If it’s not a situation where Square slides over and Casey and/or Wallace fill the OLB spot, then it could be Casey who tries to add a few pounds and take on the middle spot.
CB: Cedrick Dort replacing Kelvin Joseph
Joseph, the outrageously talented LSU transfer, was kind of a lightning rod in his 9 games played in a UK uniform. He had a team-leading 4 interceptions, including a pick-6 against Tennessee, and displayed flashes of NFL talent. He also got picked on mercilessly by Lane Kiffin’s Ole Miss offense, picked up some awful penalties, and sat out UK’s last 2 games to opt for the NFL.
Dort started the first of those 2 games in Joseph’s spot but missed the Gator Bowl due to medical issues. Dort has played in 31 games and broken up 7 passes as a reserve. Kentucky will rotate defensive backs, so whoever starts will situationally be on and off the field. Davonte Robinson, a 6th-year senior, will see some snaps as well, and freshman Carrington Valentine spelled Dort in the Gator Bowl.
Still, Dort could become Kentucky’s next defensive sleeper. He’s done a steady job in pass coverage and given the pass-happy nature of the modern SEC, he’ll probably get plenty of chances in 2021. Filling the shoes of UK’s best man-to-man defender is a tall order, but Dort is likely up for the job.
P: Wilson Berry replacing Max Duffy
Kentucky’s punting situation has more Australian content than an Outback Steakhouse ad. Outgoing is superb senior Max Duffy, who won the Ray Guy Award in 2019 before having a few struggles in a 2020 season that would’ve been fine by any other standards. Incoming is his countryman, Wilson Berry.
Berry’s brother, Jordan, is the punter for the Pittsburgh Steelers. His credentials are impeccable and Kentucky should be in solid hands against with the punting game. That said, Duffy was a one-in-a-million kind of punter, and Berry will have big shoes to fill. Big Australian shoes.