Head Coach: Mark Stoops
Offensive Coordinator: Rich Scangarello (First Season) Defensive Coordinator: Brad White Conference: SEC
2021 Record: 10-3 (5-3) (Beat Iowa in the Citrus Bowl)
2022 Non Conference Opponents: Miami OH, Youngstown State, Northern Illinois, Louisville Key Additions: WR Dane Key (High School), WR Tayvion Robinson (Virginia Tech), G Tashawn Manning (Auburn)
Mark Stoops has taken the Kentucky Football program to new heights, with his emphasis on running the ball and playing sound defense. For a few years, Kentucky was just a quarterback away, and by the looks of it, they found their quarterback in Will Levis, who looks to lead the Wildcats to a successful 2022 campaign.
Last season, Levis broke onto the scene, where he passed for over 2,400 yards, threw for 24 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions. Many NFL scouts love Levis and he has been projected as an early first round pick in quite a few mock drafts. He has a cannon for an arm and an extremely quick release. Over the summer he participated at the Manning Passing Academy and impressed former Senior Bowl President Jim Nagy, who said him and Florida’s Anthony Richardson were the two best quarterbacks he saw. He is a very smart player too, as you can tell he knows his personnel given where he places the ball. Along with all these pros as a passer, he does have a couple of flaws. The main one being his ability to read defenses and go through his progressions. A lot of the time if his first read isn’t open he just puts his head down and runs and if he doesn’t run, he finds himself throwing interceptions. His pure talent as a passer is great, but what really sets him apart is his versatility as a rusher. Levis stands at 6’3 and weighs around 230 pounds, making him a bigger quarterback. Despite this, he is still a great athlete and made a plethora of remarkable rushing plays where you can see him hurdling and juking defenders. He finished last season with over 500 rushing yards and 9 rushing touchdowns. The versatility of Levis’ game is what makes the Kentucky offense go. He adjusted quickly to a new scheme last year when he came from Penn State, and I expect him to do the same with new offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello. At running back, there is a lot of uncertainty for the Wildcats. The lead back currently is Chris Rodriguez Jr. however that could all change as he is under trial for driving under the influence. Reports have come out saying Rodriguez may be able to play the first few games, however nothing is official and I’d bank on him missing the season, which would be a huge blow. Rodriguez is a beast, and has been for some time now. Over the course of his career he has compiled almost 3,000 rushing yards, and has averaged 6.6 yards per carry. He’s a physical back as last year he averaged almost four yards after contact per carry, and it rarely takes one person to take him down. With him in the equation, the Wildcat offense becomes much more versatile and explosive, so it will be interesting to see what happens with his case. The receiving corps loses a huge piece in Wandale Robinson, who was one of the most explosive players in college football last season, and in some critics eyes, was the man who made Will Levis good. Over the offseason, the Wildcats brought in transfer Tayvion Robinson from Virginia Tech and also true freshman Dane Key. Key got high praise from Will Levis after spring camp, as Levis stated he would be a starter if the season began at that time. The scouting report on Key is that he’s a smooth route runner who has great ball skills and can come down with contested catches. Robinson is essentially the opposite of Key, as he is a smaller, shifty receiver, who has plenty of college experience. Unfortunately, at Virginia Tech, Robinson never had solid or consistent quarterback play, so his ceiling has been limited. In two of his three seasons, he was a slot receiver, however in 2020, he played over 60% of his snaps out wide, and was fantastic. During that 2020 season, Robinson posted a career best 2.12 yards per route run, and also averaged 8 yards after the catch per catch. I am hoping Rich Scangarello uses Robinson how he was used in 2020, as he will likely be the most targeted player on the team. The offensive line was incredible last year at both run and pass blocking. The star of the show was tackle Darrian Kinnard, however he and two other starters from that group have moved on. To expect a regression from the unit isn’t a far fetched idea, as producing another Darrian Kinnard doesn’t just happen. The group shouldn’t regress much though, as rebuilding the offensive line is where Mark Stoops and his staff thrive. The two returning starters: Eli Cox and Kenneth Horesey are both very solid. Both were guards last season and combined they gave up 25 pressures and three sacks, while being staples on one of the best run blocking units in the nation. Like I said, regression will occur, but Kentucky will still have a great offensive line that will rank in the top five of the SEC.
Kentucky’s run defense was very average last season compared to the rest of the SEC. Neither of their defensive tackles in Justin Rodgers or Josiah Hayes were very good last season as Rodgers was not physical enough at the line of scrimmage and Hayes struggled making a real impact despite playing the 13th most run defending snaps on the team. The rest of the defensive line room is very thin and doesn’t have a lot of experience. The linebacking corps is very exciting though, as Deandre Square was fantastic in pursuit, having an average depth per tackle of 2.0 which is extremely impressive for a linebacker. His counterpart Jacquez Jones is another enticing prospect, as he had a stop percentage of 11.9%. The pass rush was weak last year and despite losing their leader in pressures, I actually think the group will improve. JJ Weaver is set for a breakout campaign, as he put together a 23 pressure, seven sack 2021 season. His win rate was elite, as well as his overall pass rushing production and that was after tearing his ACL in 2020. He has been fully healthy throughout the offseason and will have an increased role in 2022, in which he will thrive. Deandre Square is also an effective pass rusher, as last year he recorded 13 pressures and had a win rate comparable to Quay Walker, who was just selected in the first round of the NFL draft. The secondary wasn’t great or terrible last season and they will likely be in that same range this season. Their cornerbacks are night and day, as Carrington Valentine was picked on constantly in 2021 and couldn’t seem to make an impact, as he allowed a passer rating of 101.6 and three touchdowns. His counterpart will be Ole Miss transfer Keidron Smith, who was a beast last year, allowing a passer rating below 60 and only one touchdown. He has four years of starting experience and will be the alpha in the cornerback room. The safeties are very similar, as Tyrell Ajian has been a starter for two seasons now and has yet to allow a passer rating below 113 or record multiple interceptions. His counterpart, Jalen Geiger hasn’t had as much experience, but was solid in the time he got last season, allowing a passer rating of 77.6 and forcing two incompletions without allowing a touchdown. He also dropped two interceptions, which shows he puts himself in the best position to make plays, and just needs to execute. Expect Kentucky’s defense to rank toward the middle of the SEC in every category, as they return some talented pieces.
The Wildcats don’t have an extremely daunting schedule, as they avoid Alabama and Texas A&M. The SEC is still an extremely tough conference though, and the stretch of games between Ole Miss and Tennessee is not an easy one. I see Will Levis improving in his second season as starter, and if Chris Rodriguez Jr does end up playing, Kentucky will have one of the best offenses in the nation once again, which will lead them to another successful season under Mark Stoops.
Record Prediction: 9-3
V Miami OH: Win
AT Florida: Loss
V Youngstown State: Win
V Northern Illinois: Win
AT Ole Miss: Win
V South Carolina: Win
V Mississippi State: Win
AT Tennessee: Loss
AT Mizzou: Win
V Vanderbilt: Win
V Georgia: Loss
V Louisville: Win