Kentucky football: Projecting the Wildcats' 2021 starting lineup
Despite a 5-6 campaign in the all-SEC 2020 season, Kentucky did reach a bowl game for the 5th consecutive year and won for the 3rd consecutive time. The Wildcats will sustain some significant personnel losses but also will retain several seniors who elected to return. Add to that some significant transfer depth incoming and the Wildcats are probably on as solid of footing in the East as anyone except Georgia leading up to 2021.
Offensive, Kentucky returns most of the personnel from a group that finished 11th in the league in scoring, but last in total yardage. The good news was that Kentucky was again potent on the ground, finishing 5th in the SEC in rushing, just under a yard per game behind Georgia. The Wildcats will look to upgrade the passing attack with new offensive coordinator Liam Coen, who brings his NFL pedigree in an attempt to upgrade the miserable passing attack of the last few seasons.
Defensively, Kentucky has more severe losses, but also has a solid returning corps of veterans. UK ended up 5th in the SEC in both scoring defense and defensive yardage allowed, and the Wildcats led the SEC in interceptions. That said, UK was just above the league’s basement in QB sacks and will look to shore up the pass rush for next season. At final count, this projected 2021 UK offense includes 7 returning starters and the defense includes 6.
- QB: Beau Allen
- RB: Christopher Rodriguez
- WR: Josh Ali
- WR: Wan’Dale Robinson
- WR: Isaiah Epps
- LT: Darian Kinnard
- LG: Jager Burton
- C: Luke Fortner
- RG: Austin Dotson
- RT: Jeremy Flax
- TE: Keaton Upshaw
Foremost on Kentucky’s offense returnees is Rodriguez, the battering ram of a running back who averaged more than 6 yards per carry and ranked among the most productive rushers in the SEC with 785 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. The offense got a positive surprise with the return of senior receiver Josh Ali, whose 54 catches for 473 yards left him comfortably as the team leader in both categories.
UK will return 3 offensive line starters but could have returned just one, as Kinnard left the NFL on hold and Fortner elected to return for another senior season.
It is likely that Fortner or Austin Dotson will slide over to center to replace Drake Jackson. True freshman Jager Burton is good enough to play from Day 1, and Kinnard may shift from right tackle to left tackle to try to replace Landon Young. Tight end Upshaw may have the most benefit from a new offense, but given Kentucky’s offensive issues, don’t be shocked to see Upshaw and senior Justin Rigg play together, leaving UK with just 2 receivers at any given time. And yes, if he’s good to go, Nebraska transfer Wan’Dale Robinson will be one of those two. He has the potential to be the biggest impact transfer in the SEC. He’s that dynamic.
Quarterback is a huge question mark and obviously the biggest storyline heading into spring ball. Terry Wilson is moving on, leaving Allen and Joey Gatewood to battle for the starting job.
Allen seems likely a slightly better fit for Coen’s offense. Don’t be surprised if Kentucky adds another veteran QB … or if that veteran ends up getting a decent shot at winning the starting nod, at least to begin the season.
- DE: Josh Paschal
- NG: Marquan McCall
- DT: Justin Rogers
- LB/DE: J.J. Weaver
- LB: Jordan Wright
- LB: DeAndre Square
- LB/Nickle: Vito Tisdale
- CB: Cedrick Dort
- CB: Carrington Valentine
- SS: Tyrell Ajian
- FS: Yusuf Corker
Kentucky will have to shuffle some bodies up front, particularly at nose, where the loss of Quinton Bohanna will be felt. Still, McCall is solid, and Rogers played well in spots as a true freshman. The edge position is open for competition, and there are plenty of possibilities there. J.J. Weaver could well be the guy, but so could Georgia Tech transfer Jordan Dingle.
At linebacker, Kentucky has to replace Jamin Davis, who led the Wildcats in tackles and played at an All-SEC level. The good news is that Square is returning, and he will likely be the leader of the group. Watch for Jared Casey to see plenty of snaps, and the use of Tisdale is a little bit deceptive. He’s a true nickle and could start at DB if needed, but on passing downs, he’ll certainly be on the field.
The return of Ajian and Corker at safety should keep the Wildcats solid. Valentine will step into the spot opened up by Kelvin Joseph’s NFL move, but the Wildcats went 2-0 after Joseph opted out late in the 2020 season. Davonte Robinson, a 6th-year senior, will also get plenty of snaps someplace, so don’t sleep on him.
Final thoughts …
Kentucky has plenty of vacancies to fill during the offseason. But as much as ever before, the Wildcats have plenty of talented, versatile options waiting to step up. The returns of Kinnard and Fortner up front, of Ali at receiver, and of Rigg at tight end will all help Kentucky transition without making massive changes.
Robinson, if eligible, could be an absolute game-changer.
Obviously, the quarterback position and the offensive philosophy will be big question marks, but there is reason for optimism on the first front. And on the second, Kentucky has won games playing with one hand tied behind its back for the last 2 seasons on offense. How could it get worse?
Defensively, the Wildcats have to work on the pass rush and replace Davis in the linebacker corps. There’ll be some shuffling in the secondary, but there is plenty of veteran talent. If Kentucky can find a pass rusher to replace Boogie Watson, there’s reason to think this defense could show overall improvement from 2020.
Will Kentucky be a factor in the East in 2021? Well, we’re a long way from that territory now. Georgia looks like the heavy favorite.
But the Wildcats’ outlook is bright, and if the offensive infusion in the passing game makes Kentucky just credible in the air, it could be a big step forward. Kentucky has won with a rugged defense and a sturdy but unimaginative offense. If it can add a middle-of-the-league level passing game, it could well be UGA and then UK in the East in 2021.