Kentucky football: Handing out team superlatives for the 2021 regular season
The end of Kentucky’s 9-3 regular season means it’s time to dive into the awards bag and give out those end-of-year honors to the Wildcats most responsible for a very successful season. Like fertilizer, credit and blame spread around nicely, and there are plenty of deserving Wildcats for these post-season honors. But here’s our picks for the team superlatives for the Kentucky Wildcats.
Team MVP: WR Wan’Dale Robinson
There were plenty of deserving candidates, but perhaps the most irreplaceable presence on the team was Robinson. The junior transfer finished the regular season with a school-record 94 catches for 1,178 yards. For a team whose offensive success was largely predicated on the development of the passing game, so much of that weight was carried by Robinson. Only once did he have fewer than 6 catches, and he never had fewer than 53 receiving yards in a game. In a season when he was guaranteed to see the opposing team’s best DB, Robinson just made plays, week in and week out.
Offensive MVP: QB Will Levis
No intended slight to superb RB Chris Rodriguez, but aside from Robinson, Levis was the most irreplaceable part of Kentucky’s offense. And with some hiccups and turnover issues aside, Levis did what Liam Coen and Mark Stoops needed him to do — he made Kentucky’s downfield passing offense a viable threat. Levis completed 67% of his passes for 2,579 yards and 23 touchdowns. He added 387 yards and 9 scores on the ground. He also was the emotional leader of the offense, and his all-out rushing style endeared him to Kentucky’s fans.
Defensive MVP: DE Josh Paschal
Paschal’s size and speed made him a uniquely disruptive presence. Paschal’s 53 tackles were 5th-best on the team, but his 15.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks demonstrated his disruptive abilities. His athleticism was unique within the UK team, but frankly, there aren’t many players anywhere with the size to plug short-yardage runs and the speed to track down ball carriers on the edge. He’s an easy pick as the MVP of Kentucky’s defense.
True freshman of the year: LB Trevin Wallace
Stoops and Kentucky don’t give a ton of time to true freshmen, so Wallace’s significant playing time should send a signal that he really is a special young player. He finished the season with 32 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, and a pair of QB sacks. Wallace’s athleticism was a nice complement to veteran linebackers like Jacquez Jones and DeAndre Square, and his future at Kentucky is bright.
Transfer of the Year: LB Jacquez Jones
Robinson and Levis were certainly and obviously deserving, but the guy who Kentucky most needed might have been Jones, the Ole Miss transfer. The Wildcats lost standout linebacker D’Eryk Jackson before the season (although Jackson did make it back to play in the last couple of regular-season games), and Jones plugged right in from Day 1. His 86 tackles led the defense, and his 4 passes broken up demonstrated the versatility of his skills. Jones is considering staying another year, and he’d certainly be welcome in Lexington.
Most improved: OL Eli Cox
Cox had some experience last season, but after being kind of tentatively penciled in as a starter at guard before the season, he was astonishingly effective within Kentucky’s veteran offensive line. Cox earned midseason All-American honors from ESPN, and went from a question mark to an exclamation mark. Unfortunately, his season ended with an injury in the Tennessee game, but Cox was a quiet star in 2021.
Biggest surprise: DT Octavious Oxendine
Oxendine, who was a somewhat under-the-radar in-state recruit in the 2020 class, barely saw the field last season. But in his second year, he suddenly made a move up the depth chart. With his 320-pound size, and his Paschal-like explosiveness and speed, Oxendine was coming on as a force. He had 3 tackles including being in on a tackle for loss in the win over Florida, and the following week, he had a pair of sacks against LSU. Unfortunately, at that point, injury ended his season. His presence certainly could’ve helped Kentucky in its tough Tennessee loss, but with senior Marquan McCall moving along, Oxendine should be ready to slide into his place.
Play of the Year: The Block
In a season with plenty of impressive offensive plays, the standout play is, oddly, a special teams play. Kentucky trailed Florida 10-7 midway through the 3rd quarter. Having held the Gators to an (apparent) field goal, Kentucky defensive line star Josh Paschal knifed through the Gators’ line and blocked Jace Christmann’s kick. Freshman linebacker Trevin Wallace grabbed the blocked kick and took it to the house. Kentucky never trailed again, and moved all the way to 6-0 before Georgia brought the season back to Earth. But for one glorious moment in Lexington, anything seemed possible.
Win of the Year: Florida
With 9 wins, Kentucky has a couple of candidates. Taking down LSU neatly in a 42-21 decision was a smooth moment in Kentucky’s climb up the SEC– and it probably was the final straw for Ed Orgeron. The 52-21 win over Louisville to conclude the regular season was a neat statement.
But at the end of the day, the big win was Florida. Yes, Florida ended up being awful and fired its coach. But at that point, Florida was ranked 10th in the nation, had just thumped Tennessee and lost to Alabama by 2 points — back when a close game with Alabama was a rarely-seen thing. Kentucky hadn’t defeated the Gators in Lexington since 1987, and knocking down another wall for the Wildcats made for the most memorable moment of the 2021 regular season.