Kentucky football: 2020 season report card
Kentucky’s 41-18 victory over South Carolina closed the regular season on a positive note and gave the Wildcats hope for a reasonably decent bowl appearance. It was a tough season in Lexington, though, and even finishing strong won’t allay all the questions. Here’s our final report card for the 2020 Wildcats.
It wasn’t a brilliant year for Mark Stoops. His offense underperformed (which cost Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw their job), and his defense blew a rare solid offensive effort in Week 2. Kentucky underachieved on special teams and frittered away decent opportunities to win against Missouri and Georgia simply based on a lack of offensive imagination. That said, the offensive line and running game were strengths, the defense had its moments and Kentucky overcame a larger-than-normal share of adversity.
Given how crazy the 2020 season was, it wasn’t a surprise that Stoops fired Gran and Hinshaw. That said, while this was the toughest year Stoops had experienced since at least 2017 and more likely 2015, he’s still the man in Lexington. There’s no reason to expect him not to be around long enough to lap Bear Bryant as UK’s winningest coach ever.
QB play: D+
Terry Wilson had a fairly awful season. His stats aren’t particularly awful, as he completed comfortably more than 60 percent of his passes for almost 1,100 yards, with 7 touchdowns against 4 interceptions. But Kentucky’s passing game was by far the worst in the SEC, and some of that has to go on the quarterback. Wilson had a knack for untimely mistakes and rarely seemed to be on the same page as his receivers. When he was making split-second decisions comfortably, he was fine. But for much of the season, the UK offense was stuck in 2nd gear, and Wilson didn’t do much to get it rolling.
Kentucky didn’t get much help from their backups. Joey Gatewood was much-hyped, but he didn’t see a ton of snaps, and when he did (for instance, against Georgia), the UK offense was so conservative that it was hard to know how good he might be. Freshman Beau Allen saw some time, and he looks like the potential UK quarterback of the future. But the future will have to be substantially brighter than the present.
Running game: B
Sophomore Chris Rodriguez was a revelation. Despite missing a couple of games, he finished the season with 701 yards rushing and 9 touchdowns on just 102 carries. Senior A.J. Rose was up and down and delivered the facepalm-of-the-year moment, when he taunted Ole Miss defenders after a long run, got caught from behind and 2 plays later fumbled the ball away inside the opponents’ 2-yard line. Wilson helped out with 410 yards rushing and 5 touchdowns, while Kavosiey Smoke didn’t get a ton of carries.
Kentucky ran the ball well, although the offense did struggle terribly in the red zone. The inability to get a needed yard surfaced on several occasions and often turned 7s into 3s. The good news is that Rodriguez rarely struggles in that department. Going forward, UK would love to see him average more like 20 carries a game instead of the dozen he had this year.
Kentucky’s tight ends had a few solid moments, and senior Josh Ali (49 catches, 462 yards) made some plays. But that aside, this group was an embarrassment. UK’s 2nd-leading receivers were tight end Keaton Upshaw and wideout Demarcus Harris, each with just 14 catches. UK had no 2nd receiver who amassed 200 yards. The group did not create separation, struggled with drops and rarely made plays to help Wilson and the anemic passing game.
This is perhaps the biggest opportunity on UK’s depth chart. It’s hard to know who’ll return and who won’t, but any outstanding freshman could play right away. Ali and Upshaw would both be solid returnees, but anybody else could well be surpassed by a freshman, a transfer (ahem, Wan’Dale Robinson) or maybe a warm body.
Offensive line: B+
First things first. This was a tough season for these guys, as OL coach John Schlarman passed away at midseason. But this veteran group continued to open holes for the running backs and pave the way for one of the SEC’s top rushing attacks (3rd in rushing yardage at the time of writing). One mild disappointment was a fairly high number of sacks allowed, particularly given how infrequently UK passed the ball. But this group remained a strength of the team, despite injuries, COVID-19 losses and Coach Schlarman’s death. They’ll have some graduation (and possible NFL) losses, but there’s a solid nucleus here moving forward.
Pass defense: C+
Kentucky has been at the bottom of the SEC in sacks this year, which has certainly not done much to help the team. Jamar Watson had 5 sacks, but UK logged just 11 as a team, well off the pace of the past 2 years. The UK secondary ran hot and cold, with Kelvin Joseph being among the SEC’s interception leaders but also having some games (Ole Miss, for instance) where he was toasted in man coverage. UK’s 13 interceptions were among the top totals in the SEC, and UK was among the top teams in passing yardage allowed. The defense tended to set the tone in wins, like the Mississippi State and Tennessee games where multiple picks keyed the victory. But the group had a few weeks where they spent the entire game on the run.
Run defense: C+
The Wildcats were adequate in defending the run, allowing a little more than 4 yards per carry but falling into below-average rankings in rushing yardage allowed and 3rd-down conversions allowed. Frankly, the oft-injured Quinton Bohanna was key. When the big man plugged the middle, the UK run defense was fairly sturdy. But when he was out, opponents could gash UK with the power running game. Kentucky’s top tackle, Jamin Davis, did pretty well in run support, as did underrated safety Yusuf Corker.
Kentucky’s reserve defensive linemen didn’t see a ton of time, but they’ll be key moving forward. Five-star recruit Justin Rogers had a sack against Carolina, and he could be key in stopping the run next season and beyond. Linebacker J.J. Weaver also showed signs of becoming a standout. Kentucky has more big bodies than before. It’s just a question of when they can produce.
Overall GPA: 2.2 (C+)
This was the kind of season that would probably result in a report card sent home to a parent reading something along the lines of, “Mark is a good boy, who has shown that he is capable of things like winning at Tennessee and crafting one of the SEC’s top rushing games and a surprisingly good secondary. However, while many of his contemporaries are playing uptempo, aggressive football, Mark is too often content to run the clock and try to win games 14-10. He can do better.”
Moving forward, Kentucky has to feature a more effective offense, and one that’s more diverse than 3 yards and a cloud of dust. Stoops has banked enough goodwill that the struggles of 2020 shouldn’t be defining. His next OC hire will be scrutinized. But hopefully, the season will be remembered as a warning on the inadequacy of the current offensive scheme, and how good programs won’t lose games to a team that can’t at least threaten a passing game.