6 offseason priorities for Kentucky in 2021
Kentucky finished off the 2020 season with an impressive 23-21 Gator Bowl win over North Carolina State on Jan. 2. With the Wildcats hoping for a program-first 6 consecutive bowl seasons and 4 consecutive season-ending bowl wins in the year ahead, there are priorities for a little tidying up in Lexington. Here are 6 pivotal areas of focus:
1. Fixing the passing game
The good news is that help is on the way. Kentucky was dead last in the SEC in passing in 2020 for the 2nd year in a row. While the 2019 struggles were largely due to playing the 2nd half of the season with wide receiver Lynn Bowden at QB, in 2020 Terry Wilson, Joey Gatewood and Beau Allen just couldn’t get the air attack moving. There were plenty of reasons for the struggle (as will be discussed below in some detail), but the Wildcats can’t move forward offensively without a respectable passing attack. Enter L.A. Rams assistant Liam Coen, part of the Sean McVay coaching tree. Coen will replace offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and offer a kick to the passing attack. Head coach Mark Stoops can’t win more games without scoring more points, and he can’t score more points without a second dimesion to the offense. This is Coen’s task, and Kentucky looks forward to getting it underway in spring practice.
2. Finding the QB
So who will lead Coen’s offense? After Wilson was injured for most of 2019, he had a very uneven 2020 and entered the transfer portal to finish his college career elsewhere. Likewise sophomore Nik Scalzo. Kentucky is now choosing among Auburn transfer Gatewood, freshman Allen and newcomer Kaiya Sheron. Gatewood is experienced, but he struggled deeply in passing and didn’t emerge as a running threat as anticipated. Allen is probably the smoothest passer, but he lacks substantial experience. Sheron is thought of as a long-term guy. A veteran transfer is likely, even if just to add some depth. At this point, Allen is probably the best fit to lead Coen’s offense … but QB play will be key for Kentucky.
3. Whom to pass to?
Kentucky’s wide receiving play was pretty morbid in 2020. The team did get a shot in the arm when senior Josh Ali announced that he will return for another season. Ali’s 53 catches for 480 yards in 2020 gave him more than 3 times as many catches as anyone Wildcat and more than twice as many receiving yards. His return gives Coen one dependable playmaker in the passing game. Tight end Keaton Upshaw finished with 16 catches for 198 yards and 3 touchdowns, and he is likely to see a greater role in the new offense. Kentucky adds several significant freshman recruits at receiver, including 4-star target Dekel Crowdus and Alabama standout Christian Lewis. It should be all hands on deck this spring, as the Wildcats have to find somebody who can haul in passes.
4. Plugging in on the O-line
The surprise announcements that Darian Kinnard and Luke Fortner will return for another season keep UK from suffering from an all-out drought on the front line, but UK will have to replace tackle Landon Young and center Drake Jackson. Jackson was backed up by sophomore Quintin Wilson, but UK might shuffle guys inside, particularly to get top-100 national prospect Jager Burton onto the field quickly. At tackle, JUCO transfer Jeremy Flax is a massive specimen at 6-foot-6 and 356 pounds. With a full season under his belt and spring practice to come, he might be the heir apparent to Young.
5. Beefing up the pass rush
UK’s 14 sacks in 2020 were at the bottom of the SEC after 2 consecutive seasons of 30-plus. The Wildcats simply have to figure out a way to get to the quarterback more next season. Granted, UK’s league-leading 16 interceptions suggest that the pass rush had an impact, but UK needs to finish a few more plays to stay competitive in the SEC. An outstanding freshman class played little up front for the Wildcats in 2020, but look for more production from those guys (including standout lineman Justin Rogers) in 2021.
6. Fixing special teams
Kentucky didn’t have a defined special teams coach in 2020. The team struggled, getting little production in the return game, losing the Ole Miss game after a critical missed extra point and getting a mediocre season from former Ray Guy winner Max Duffy. With former Bengals assistant Jemal Singleton taking over the job in 2021, Kentucky needs to be solid in the kicking and return games next season. It could be the difference in a good or great season (or a mediocre or good one, if you’re less optimistic).