Kentucky football: Can Will Levis do even more for the Wildcats?
In the aftermath of Kentucky’s 22-19 loss to Ole Miss, a pair of distinct truths came into focus.
Truth 1 – Will Levis did plenty to put Kentucky in position to win against the Rebels. The senior quarterback completed 18 of 24 passes for 220 yards and 2 touchdowns. He drove downfield twice against the Mississippi defense late in the 4th quarter with a chance to win the game.
Truth 2 – Will Levis may have to do more for Kentucky to win meaningful games in 2022.
“I wouldn’t trade him for anybody,” UK coach Mark Stoops said of Levis on Monday. But Stoops might need even better performances from Levis.
Few players in college football draw opposing viewpoints like Levis. Those who appreciate his play proclaim him a future first-round NFL pick. In fact, Las Vegas odds on Levis being chosen with the 1st pick of the draft are currently at +600. And then there are those who don’t see it, who think he’s overrated and overhyped. Part of the reason for the controversy probably lies in both truths above. Levis has been as significant as anyone in Kentucky’s early-season success. And he’s shown that he’s capable of more.
The facts stand out on Levis’s résumé pretty clearly. He’s 3rd in the SEC in passing yards (1,405), 3rd in touchdown passes (12), and 2nd in QB rating. His 10 yards per pass attempt rank second in the conference. Five games into the 2021 season, Levis had thrown 6 interceptions, which he has trimmed to 4 in the first 5 games of 2022. His bevy of big plays have been astonishing.
Kentucky’s ground game has gone from one of the most dangerous in the Southeastern Conference to nearly toothless. The Wildcats have just 4 runs of 20 or more yards in 5 games, and 0 runs of 30 yards. And Levis is part of that problem. A year ago, his first 5 games included runs of 10, 12, 18, and 21 yards. Including sacks (of which there were 10), Levis had 29 carries for 88 yards. Without the sacks, that was 19 carries for 144 yards.
This year, Levis has 40 rushes for minus-56 yards. Yes, sacks (of which UK has allowed 19) are a significant part of the problem. But even taking out the sacks, Levis has 21 carries for 67 yards. He had one 24-yard run that’s basically been it on the ground. Admittedly, it’s complicated. Levis running means putting himself in harm’s way. A Wildcat offense without Levis doubtlessly would be worse than one with a slightly run-shy Levis.
And the sacks. Sure, Levis can’t block for himself. Undoubtedly, his life would be easier with a better line in front of him. But Kentucky needs the Levis who played in front of a patchwork line against Iowa in the Citrus Bowl, got sacked 6 times, but still had the presence to lead the Wildcats to a winning drive in the final minute. Instead, Levis has seemed unaware of protection breaking down at times, such as UK’s final offensive play against Ole Miss. With starting tackle Jeremy Flax out of the game, Ole Miss rushed against substitute tackle David Wohlabaugh, sacked Levis, and stripped the ball. Levis said after the game he was waiting on a double move from his receiver. Ultimately, it was one move more than he had time for.
As with every moment of offensive philosophy, changes have a ripple effect throughout a team. If Levis looks to pull the ball and run, he may take away explosive downfield plays – and Kentucky’s 8 pass plays of 40 or more yards are the 2nd-highest total in the nation. Such a change also, as noted above, risks injury. If Kentucky adjusts the playbook to make Levis a 1-read-and-go quarterback, it also could take away the big play, and make the Wildcats much easier to defend.
In the end, Kentucky may make no adjustment at all. It may ultimately fall to Levis to be even better in decision making – to know (very loosely paraphrasing Kenny Rogers) when to hold them and when to run for his life. The razor’s edge between the game-winning touchdown and the game-ending sack might have to be managed a bit more finely. Will Levis has given Kentucky more than plenty. He doesn’t in any way deserve to have more asked from him. But whether it’s fair or not, Levis probably has to give Kentucky even more, to play even better to have the season the Wildcats want.