Kentucky football: 5 most important storylines to monitor during Saturday's spring game
After a year of COVID cancellation and a year without a public spring game, forgive Big Blue Nation if they need to sweep out a few cobwebs to process it, but UK’s spring game rolls around on Saturday. Yes, it’s UK’s first spring game since 2019. And there are plenty of important stories to watch with the Wildcats. Here are 5 of the biggest.
1. The 49ers guys — Rich Scangarello and Zach Yenser
Kentucky lost offensive coordinator Liam Coen to the LA Rams and offensive line coach Eric Wolford to Alabama. To make the hire, the Wildcats — who had relied on a connection with the Rams to nab Coen — forged a connection with another NFL team, the 49ers. Enter offensive line coach Zach Yenser and offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello.
Scangarello was the QB coach in San Francisco, while Yenser was an assistant OL coach. Given that Yenser inherited Kentucky’s most consistent position group less than 2 full seasons after the death of OL coach John Schlarman, and Scangarello is tasked with continuing the balance under Coen, both guys have some significant shoes to fill. Early reviews are positive, but the spring game is the first public chance to see how the learning curve is treating UK’s newest coaches … and how this 49ers connection will (or won’t) pay off for Will Levis and the offense.
2. Who is going to catch the ball?
Levis is one of the SEC’s better returning QBs. But there are holes around him. When UK lost Wan’Dale Robinson to the NFL, the Wildcats lost plenty of production. Robinson accounted for 43% of UK’s receptions, 45% of their passing yards, and 29% of their passing touchdowns. With No. 2 target Josh Ali out of eligibility and veteran tight end Justin Rigg gone for the same reason, Kentucky has to find targets and fast.
Will it be receiver-turned-tight end Izayah Cummings, who is UK’s top returning target, who shines? Transfer Tayvion Robinson from Virginia Tech or Javon Baker from Alabama? Some of the highly regarded freshmen who either didn’t see the field (Dekel Crowdus) or barely saw the field (Christian Lewis) last year? Tight end star Keaton Upshaw, who missed last season with an injury? If Scangarello is indeed continuing the trend Coen started, somebody has to catch the passes. The spring game is a good first look at figuring out exactly which guy(s) that will be.
3. Replacing Vito
Every spring seems to carry a bad injury break or two, and the loss of DB Vito Tisdale (ACL/MCL) was Kentucky’s 2022 installment. It’ll be interesting to see how the UK secondary adjusts. Tisdale was likely a safety and/or nickle and it’s corner where Kentucky is painfully thin. Returning starters Tyrell Ajian and Carrington Valentine have likely got one safety and one corner spot locked down. But after that? Well, it gets dicey.
Jalen Geiger is definitely going to see more action this season, and players like Andru Phillips and Taj Dodson will get a shot to step up. Early enrollees Eli Reed and Andre Stewart will likely see some time. It’ll be a good chance to see who might contribute … and how much of a difference Kentucky has between the veteran guys and some of the youngsters. The Wildcats might need all the help they can get, even if there is truth to the rumors of a Power 5 veteran DB transferring in after the spring.
4. Who’s blocking?
Kentucky’s offensive line has been a strength in recent campaigns, but the Wildcats do have to replace 3 lost starters, including an All-American tackle and an all-SEC center. The Wildcats return guards Kenneth Horsey and Eli Cox. Cox was particularly impressive before his season was prematurely ended by injury. He’s moving to center this spring. Auburn transfer Tashawn Manning will probably start at guard from Day 1. Which leaves the tackles. Massive JUCO standout Jeremy Flax didn’t show much last season but is impressing those around the program. He and a host of potential other tackles (veteran Deondre Buford? Redshirt David Wohlabaugh? 5-star recruit Kiyaunta Goodwin?) will get plenty of attention on Saturday.
5. And who steps up on the defensive line?
Kentucky only lost 3 players on the defensive line, but all were starters, led by all-SEC star Josh Paschal and massive tackle Marquan McCall. Kentucky has plenty of talent — guys like Octavious Oxendine and Justin Rogers were big-time recruits who have showed flashes of SEC ability. But are they ready for full-time jobs? And who will join them?
Sophomore Tre’vonn Rybka is drawing rave reviews from many observers and Ohio State transfer Darrion Henry-Young will get every chance to shine. Kentucky has the talent, but not the experience on the defensive line. Which means that getting the young guys experienced will be a story to watch this weekend.