I’ll let you in on a little secret.

When I fill out my preseason All-SEC ballot in July, Will Levis’ name won’t be on it. Barring some sort of injury, I’ll have Bryce Young, Hendon Hooker and KJ Jefferson as my top 3 SEC quarterbacks heading into 2022. Preseason ballots are supposed to be based on what we saw the previous year, and in 2021, those 3 signal-callers were the most impressive among the conference’s returners.

With the prolific Will Rogers, decorated Oklahoma transfer Spencer Rattler and national championship-winning quarterback Stetson Bennett, there’s a good chance that Levis is in the middle of the pack of any preseason ranking of the conference’s quarterbacks. The position is deep, and Levis’ somewhat limited preseason buzz outside of the Bluegrass State will reflect that.

Having said that, if there’s any Levis stock left to buy, I want in.

Never mind the fact that he has a new offensive coordinator, a new go-to target and a new left tackle. He still needs to show he can cut down the turnovers, as well. That’ll be at the center of any projection involving Levis and rightfully so. Even with those potential limitations, there’s still a path for Levis to become 1 of the 10 best quarterbacks in the country.

How? Let’s dig into that.

Recent history suggests that there’s a lot to like with veterans who didn’t get full reps with the first-teamers in Year 1 but returned as the unquestioned starters in Year 2.

Think back to Kyle Trask in 2020. After he took over for an injured Feleipe Franks in 2019 and showed a lot of promise, he put it all together as the undoubted QB1 and finished as a Heisman Trophy finalist for the No. 1 passing offense in America in 2020.

The more extreme example of that is, of course, Joe Burrow. It might be unfair to compare anyone to Burrow, but we know that like Levis, he didn’t enroll until after spring. In that first year as the starter, he showed flashes early in the season and then blossomed into a much more confident player by season’s end. Burrow always points back to the epic 2018 regular-season finale against A&M as the turning point because LSU finally allowed him to be a focal point of the running game.

Levis, as we know, followed a similar path in Year 1 as a starter. It culminated with a regular-season finale in which he rushed for a career-high 4 touchdowns in a beatdown of Louisville:

Yeah, he is that dude. When Levis flips that switch like he did against LSU and Louisville, look out.

There’s a nastiness to Levis’ running style. He’ll run through you, by you and over you. He’ll throw the upside-down “L” at you.

As long as he’s healthy, that element elevates his floor. The guy already showed he’s durable. Levis ran like that and still didn’t miss any time in 2021. In his final 7 regular-season games, he averaged 43 rushing yards and racked up 8 touchdowns with his legs. A deeper understanding of the offense should allow Levis to pick his spots even better as a runner after he finished with PFF’s No. 4 rushing grade among Power 5 quarterbacks (only 7 returning Power 5 QBs had a better overall PFF grade than Levis in 2021).

Speaking of that deeper understanding, replacing Liam Coen as the team’s offensive coordinator wasn’t a move Mark Stoops wanted to make. But he did so by grabbing Rich Scangarello from the San Francisco 49ers to keep UK in the Sean McVay/Kyle Shanahan tree. For the sake of continuity — and Levis’ 2022 upside — that was a massive win. Even if some of the terminology is different, Levis is still not faced with a learning curve as steep as last year’s when he had to master a new playbook as a mid-year enrollee.

Let’s not forget that at this time last year, we really didn’t know what to expect from Levis as a thrower. He was used as more of a run-first quarterback at Penn State. Shoot, we didn’t even know that Levis had consulted a Canadian biomechanics expert to improve his throwing motion. For the most part, the results were positive. Yes, he had the 13 interceptions. That number has to drop if he’s going to reach that aforementioned top-10 QB status.

But Levis was also more accurate than that number would indicate. He completed 60% of his passes in 11 of his 13 starts, and those 2 performances below that mark were in Kentucky’s first 5 games.

Look at the side-by-side of how Levis started compared to where he finished:

2021 Levis
First 5 games
Last 8 games
Completion %
QB rating
Rushing yards/game
Rushing TDs/game

If Levis just replicates his averages from those final 8 games, he’s flirting with 40 total touchdowns and 3,500 scrimmage yards (that’s using the 3 touchdown average and multiplying it over a 13-game sample size). Bryce Young, Sam Hartman, Kenny Pickett, CJ Stroud and Brennan Armstrong were the only Power 5 quarterbacks to hit both of those marks in 2021.

The crazy thing is that 2 of those first 5 games were against UT Chattanooga and Louisiana-Monroe while the 3 Power 5 contests were against teams that won 6 regular season games apiece. The last 8 games, however, came against 4 Power 5 teams that won 7 regular-season games, including matchups against a pair of teams with top-15 defenses (Georgia and Iowa).

If you go back and watch that Georgia game, wherein Levis was tasked with leading Kentucky against one of the best defenses of the 21st century, he was darn impressive within that game plan. He completed 76% of his passes (even though Kentucky had multiple drops) and was 1 of 2 quarterbacks all year to have multiple touchdown passes against the Dawgs. Stoops said afterward that Levis “competed his tail off.”

That’s the most redeeming quality about Levis. You’re never going to have to question that. He’s got room to improve his footwork and he needs to develop reading defenses. We don’t know how it’ll look in a post-Wan’Dale Robinson world, but adding Virginia Tech’s Tayvion Robinson and Alabama’s Javon Baker should help Levis as he enters Year 5 of college, as should the fact that he’s got an All-SEC tailback returning in Chris Rodriguez.

It’s been 15 years since Kentucky had an All-SEC quarterback at season’s end. That was Andre Woodson. It’s been a long time since the Wildcats had a returning starter who they could feel this good about. After all, even in an imperfect individual season, Levis still helped lead Kentucky to its second winning season in SEC play since the Jimmy Carter administration.

A prime opportunity awaits Levis in 2022. Knowing him, he’ll run through anything that stands in his way of it.