Kentucky football: Grading the 2021 season
Kentucky’s 9-3 season in 2021 is one of the most successful in recent memory. Since Kentucky’s 10-1 season in 1977, the Wildcats hadn’t posted a winning SEC season until 2018. A 5-3 mark in 2021 marks the 2nd winning SEC mark in the last 4 years. Only a tough home loss to Tennessee will keep the Wildcats out of the New Year’s 6 bowl games. But how’d the Wildcats get there? Here’s a quick grade of the various position groups and the coaches of the ‘Cats.
QB play: B
Penn State transfer Will Levis had flashes of brilliance in the 2021 season. He finishes the regular season with 2,593 passing yards and 23 touchdowns through the air. Factor in an additional 387 rushing yards and 9 scores on the ground, and Levis largely delivered as expected. That said, he did throw a dozen interceptions, and he had a few truly off weeks. Levis hit some true high points, but he can improve on his accuracy and decision-making in 2022.
RB play: B+
To be candid, the only real issue with the running backs was Chris Rodriguez Jr.’s habit of inopportune fumbles. That aside, Rodriguez’s 8 100-yard rushing games demonstrated his consistency (he had another game with 99 rushing yards), and his durability and productivity were impressive. Kavosiey Smoke and Jutahn McClain showed some nice spark off the bench. Fumbles aside, this group was as sharp as predicted.
WR play: B
Wan’Dale Robinson gets an A+ for one of the best seasons in UK football history. Senior Josh Ali was valiant in support, giving UK an excellent 2nd option in the passing game. The issue for Kentucky was that nobody else stepped up as a consistent option. UK had no other receivers who reached 20 receptions or 200 receiving yards. Considering that UK had to play a couple of games without Ali, it’s astonishing that it passed as well as it did.
Offensive line play: A-
Kentucky’s rushing game wasn’t quite as consistent as in the past, which was possibly predictable in light of the increased emphasis on passing. That said, the Kentucky o-line did a good job of keeping Levis upright and in one piece, allowing 18 sacks all season. The line continued to be a UK strength, perhaps the squad’s most consistent position group.
Defensive line play: B-
Josh Paschal was outstanding, but Kentucky’s other defensive linemen often failed to make any sort of appreciable push, with the exception of massive senior Marquan McCall, who missed nearly half the season with injury. Octavious Oxendine was really coming on before his season was also prematurely concluded. Kentucky’s defense often had to blitz to bring heat.
Linebacker play: B+
Ole Miss transfer Jacquez Jones was an impact player from Day 1, leading the team in tackles (86) and contributing several memorable plays, including the pass break-up against Florida that sealed Kentucky’s victory. Veteran DeAndre Square was solid, and youngsters J.J. Weaver and Trevin Wallace both had outstanding moments. This was probably Kentucky’s most consistent defensive group.
Secondary play: C
Kentucky didn’t force nearly enough turnovers, and the secondary seemed to play both conservatively and ineffectively. Of the 6 interceptions made by UK, 3 were by linebackers. The cornerback play was particularly ineffective — for instance, in the Tennessee game when Kentucky rolled up and down the field offensively and held the ball for about 46 minutes, but still lost. This is the position group most in need of a quick upgrade, again, especially at corner.
Special teams: B
Kentucky’s kick and punt return game contributed virtually nothing all season. Punter ended up being a strength, although Colin Goodfellow was something of a surprise as the starter. Matt Ruffolo was solid as a kicker, and Chance Poore was very solid on kickoffs. Of course, a blocked field goal against Florida was a season-turning play. If the return game ever contributed, this would be a particular strength on the whole.
Mark Stoops’ success is as much as Kentucky has seen since the 1970s and as much sustained success as Kentucky has seen since Bear Bryant was in Lexington in the early 1950s. That said, the inability to address defensive issues, particularly in the secondary, was a little concerning. Twice in 4 seasons, Kentucky has had historic seasons — and in both cases, tough losses to Tennessee probably prevented and even MORE special season.
Brad White’s defense was oddly uneven. Liam Coen’s offense showed incredible strides, despite a massive lack of personnel at wide receiver. On the whole, Stoops and his staff are outstanding coaches, and if Kentucky can keep them, they’ll be fortunate.