Kentucky football: 5 candidates to be the face of the Wildcats' program in 2022
It’s a good time to be UK. With a pair of 10-win seasons in the past 4 years of UK football, the Wildcats are approaching rarified air for the status of the program. It’s not that UK has never been there — it’s just been awhile. Who will be the face of the program in 2022?
There are plenty of solid candidates, but here are 5 who might be the most likely suspects for the Wildcats, who opened spring practice Tuesday.
5. Keaton Upshaw, TE
Upshaw will be a surprise to some. He was injured in fall practice and missed the 2021 season. But with Kentucky’s upgraded passing game (which figures to continue even despite the loss of offensive coordinator Liam Coen to the LA Rams), Upshaw will likely be a key red-zone target in 2022. In 2020, Upshaw was 2nd on UK’s team in catches and receiving yards behind receiver Josh Ali. He caught 3 touchdowns that year, which might not sound like much, but UK only threw 7 touchdowns.
Upshaw will see plenty of time in 2022. The 6-6, 245-pound junior has the size to truck defensive backs and the speed to work open past a linebacker. He could well be All-SEC in 2022.
4. Tayvion Robinson, WR
Again, the list includes a player who wasn’t on the field for the Wildcats last year. Robinson was a Virgnia Tech Hokie, and he caught 44 passes for 559 yards and 5 TDs in 2021 in that capacity. He transferred to Kentucky, and figures to pick up much of the slack from the loss of Wan’Dale Robinson to the NFL.
A 5-10 speedster, look for Robinson to get open early and often in the slot and have the same sort of thriving relationship with UK QB Will Levis that Wan’Dale Robinson did in 2020. He’s likely to eclipse his Virginia Tech numbers and could be an instant UK hero for doing so.
3. DeAndre Square, LB
The uptick in offense of 2021 aside, Kentucky’s a defensive squad. Square, a 5th-year returnee, is a key cog in that machine. In his 5th year in the program, Square will likely become the 3rd Wildcats of the 21st century to reach 300 tackles (the others were Wesley Woodyard and Mike Edwards). His leadership is well-known. In the Citrus Bowl, Square had been ruled out of the game with a nagging injury. He limped back on the field, made a game-clinching interception, and was nearly unable to get back off the field. It’s the stuff of legend … and of being the face of the program.
2. Chris Rodriguez, RB
With 2,739 rushing yards and 27 rushing touchdowns, Rodriguez is not only a bowling ball of a runner. He’s a seasoned veteran and could become the author of most records in UK’s history of ground gainers. He’s about 1,150 yards behind Benny Snell, and while Snell’s 48 rushing touchdowns might be out of reach, Rodriguez could make a run (not pun intended) even at that mark.
More than records, Rodriguez is a reminder of how Kentucky has built up the program. A three-star recruit that the Wildcats snuck out of Alabama, Rodriguez might not blow other backs (or defenders) away in a 40-yard dash. But with pads, helmets, and blockers, he’ll run through even SEC defenses. Despite the COVID-shortened 2020 season, Rodriguez has been a part of Kentucky teams with 33 wins in his 4 years in Lexington. He’ll have a big role in increasing that number, which is a record he might be most significantly associated with.
1. Will Levis, QB
Before Mark Stoops, Kentucky had quarterbacks. Not always, of course. But recent Wildcats history included Tim Couch, Jared Lorenzen and Andre Woodson. But it’s been since 2010 when the Wildcats last had a 3,000-yard passer, and that was Mike Hartline. Nobody has managed the feat under Stoops, where passing has often been something near a distasteful habit reserved for 3rd and long.
Levis helped change that image in 2021. Largely working with one receiver, Levis managed 2,826 yards and 24 touchdowns through the air. His 376 rushing yards and 9 touchdowns on the ground also helped aid offensive coordinator Liam Coen’s transition to Lexington.
With a new coordinator, Levis will be at the center of the program in 2021. He’s a character, he’s a fine quarterback, and he’ll probably hit heights not seen under center at UK in a good while. That makes him the top candidate to be the face of the program in 2022.