So far, so good, but Kentucky still needs to answer these questions during spring camp
While spring 2021 brings a certain amount of uncertainty in college football, it can’t hold a candle to a year ago. Barring unforeseen events, 2021 should feel much closer to normal and everybody will be moving ahead with preparing for a season that should feel refreshingly typical. In Lexington, Mark Stoops is the second-longest tentured head coach in the league (trailing only Nick Saban). That’s not to say there aren’t some questions around UK’s 2021 spring practice. Here are 10 on my mind as the Cats enter Week 2 of spring ball.
1. How will Liam Coen’s offense look?
Eddie Gran is gone and new coordinator Liam Coen is firmly in place. With a nod to Coen’s NFL experience with the Rams, it’s relatively clear that he’ll bring a new style to the table. Obviously, balance and an improved passing game are likely areas of focus, but how will it look? Coen seems more likely to favor a pro-style offense than Air Raid or the extensive screen game Kentucky has featured in the past. Who will get the targets and catches? Will UK change its running game greatly? Will it all work? So far, the coaches have been overly optimistic and upbeat.
2. Who’s the QB?
As a follow up to the first question, with Terry Wilson heading elsewhere, one key question is who will lead Coen’s offense. Second-year QB Beau Allen might be the best natural fit, but Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood has plenty of talent and Penn State transfer Will Levis should be very much in the mix. Levis won’t be in for the spring, so watch for Allen and Gatewood (and Nik Scalzo and frosh Kaiya Sheron, perhaps) to make their best cases for the job. Coen said last week that the team will know who is performing the best because the tape doesn’t lie.
3. Rodriguez and who else in the backfield?
Running back Chris Rodriguez was one of the break-through players of 2020, and the major question looking ahead is who else will see carries for Kentucky. Fourth-year back Kavosiey Smoke has shown an impressive burst in the past, but Travis Tisdale and JuTahn McClain will get their shots as well. There’s no reason that several backs won’t see time, but somebody needs to emerge as the second option behind Rodriguez.
4. Who’s stepping up at wideout?
Kentucky returns senior receiver Josh Ali, who was by far the most productive pass catcher for UK last year, with 54 receptions. Nebraska transfer Wan’Dale Robinson figures to play from Day 1. But who else can make plays on the outside? Freshmen Dekel Crowdus and Christian Lewis won’t be around for the spring, so freshman Chauncey Magwood might have a shot to shine. Likewise, second-year target Mike Drennen will get every look in the spring. As Kentucky will likely run a fair amount of two tight-end sets with returnees Justin Rigg, Keaton Upshaw and Brenden Bates at those spots, there may not be a ton of spots in the receiver rotation. But one or two could be snagged this spring.
5. Who figures in on the o-line?
Seniors Drake Jackson (center) and Landon Young (tackle) are gone, but Kentucky returns the majority of its contributing linemen. Watch for true freshman Jager Burton to get a long look in the spring. Massive tackle David Wohlabaugh will also get a chance to shine right away. Kentucky redshirted some outstanding prospects, so look for redshirted players like John Young to earn some fall snaps in the spring.
6. Where does the pass rush come from?
Kentucky was at the bottom of the SEC in sacks in 2020, and that will be an area of focus for next season. Second-year ‘Cat J.J. Weaver will be returning from injury, and he showed flashes of next-level talent last year. Freshman Sam Anaele didn’t see any action, but he has the physical tools to contribute, and veteran Jordan Wright is a solid contributor. There’s a need to fill, and while Kentucky had an outstanding freshman class of defensive linemen, those guys are mostly middle-cloggers like Justin Rogers and not pass rushers.
7, How do the transfer linebackers fit in?
Kentucky has added Georgia Tech transfer Justice Dingle and Michigan State transfer Luke Felton. Late signee Trevin Wallace is expected to be a significant addition, but he won’t be on campus until the fall. Meanwhile, Dingle and Felton have an immediate chance to lay claim to the spot vacated by Jamin Davis, or to snaps on the outside. Dingle probably fits in more on the edge, but he and Felton will both use the spring to try to work their way up the depth chart.
8. Who starts at corner?
Kentucky’s secondary was as positive a development as the pass rush was a disappointment. But with Kelvin Joseph and Brandin Echols gone, starting spots at corner are up in the air. Second-year standout Vito Tisdale is too good to not see the field, but he fits a letter better as a nickel or a safety. Likewise for veterans Tyrell Ajian, Yusuf Corker and Davonte Robinson. Cedrick Dort and Carrington Valentine might get the first crack at the corner spots, but the spring could change plenty of things. Incoming frosh Jordan Lovett could be the under-the-radar star of the recruiting class, for one. One of those potential safety/nickel types could well move to corner.
9. G’day, punter?
Kentucky’s going with a third consecutive run with an Aussie punter after Matt Panton and Max Duffy both fared well, particularly Duffy, who was one of the best in the nation over the past 2 years. Incoming punter Wilson Berry is the brother of Pittsburgh Steeler punter Jordan Berry, and his credentials are solid. But putting all the eggs in one basket on special teams is fraught with its own potential pitfalls. Suffice it to say, Berry has big shoes to fill.
10. How special are we talking?
For that matter, Kentucky had a fair number of special teams problems in 2020. The kicking game was hit and miss, the return game was non-existent, and coverage was hit and miss. The Wildcats also had no special teams coach, a situation they had remedied with the hiring of running back coach/special teams coach Jemal Singleton … until he headed to the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles a month after accepting the UK job. At this point, UK might be back to the coaching-by-committee plan from 2020, but they’ll want better results … or maybe the emergence of a better plan.