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Kentucky Football: Wildcats' 2021 Spring Preview

Mark Stoops, Kentucky Wildcats Football

Mark Stoops, Kentucky Wildcats Football

Mark Stoops begins his ninth season at Kentucky looking to get back on the winning side of things after last year’s 5-6 mark ended a streak of four consecutive seasons of at least seven wins. Of course, last year comes with an asterisk. The COVID-19 pandemic created major challenges across college football, which included a 10-game slate in the SEC. The Wildcats finished with four wins in SEC play and defeated NC State to earn their third consecutive bowl victory.

Kentucky brings back 11 starters for 2021, but a familiar set of question marks surrounds this team. The Wildcats should be strong at running back and along the offensive line. Additionally, the defense has enough of a foundation to once again rank among the best in the SEC. However, for Kentucky to push for eight (or more) wins, the quarterback position and receiving corps have to improve this fall.

5 Storylines to Watch During Kentucky's Spring Practices

1. The New Offense

Change is in the air this spring for Kentucky’s offense. Eddie Gran is out as the team’s play-caller, with Liam Coen coming from the NFL's Los Angeles Rams to take over as offensive coordinator. Since Stoops took over in 2013, the Wildcats have never finished higher than eighth in the SEC in scoring. Also, the offense had only one finish in the top five of the conference in most yards per play. Coen had a prolific playing career at UMass and spent time as an assistant at Brown, Rhode Island, Maine, and a two-year stint with the Minutemen before joining the Rams’ staff in 2018. After working as an assistant receivers coach from 2018-19, Coen shifted to quarterbacks in ’20. His background at the quarterback position and experience working under Sean McVay has to provide optimism the Wildcats will find a spark for their passing game. Although total yards isn’t the best way to judge any offense, the fact Kentucky has finished last in the SEC in passing for each of the last three years says a lot about where improvement is needed. This spring is all about Coen installing his scheme and beginning to find answers to improve the passing game in 2021.

2. Who Emerges at Quarterback?

A new play-caller and scheme aren’t going to matter unless Kentucky finds a quarterback who can effectively deliver the ball to playmakers. Terry Wilson opted to transfer after the 2020 season, leaving Joey Gatewood, Beau Allen and incoming transfer Will Levis (Penn State) to battle for the starting nod. Gatewood played in seven games last fall and connected on 17 of 35 passes for 109 yards and one pick. The Auburn transfer is regarded for his athleticism and mobility, and in limited snaps, ran for 62 yards over 25 attempts in ’20. Allen played in only two contests and connected on three of seven throws for 40 yards. Levis won’t arrive until the summer but brings experience (15 games with Penn State) and more production (473 rushing yards, 644 passing). Considering the scheme transition and Levis’ arrival time, Kentucky isn’t going to settle this battle in the spring. However, this set of practices is a good opportunity for Allen or Gatewood to get comfortable and make an early impression.

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3. Playmakers at Receiver

Kentucky hasn’t had a 1,000-yard receiver since Randall Cobb eclipsed that mark in 2010. The position hasn’t been completely devoid of talent though, as Lynn Bowden Jr. excelled here during his career and Jeff Badet averaged a healthy 21.6 yards per catch in ’16. The change in offensive scheme should result in more downfield passing but can Coen and receivers coach Jovon Bouknight develop more weapons this spring? The Wildcats had just one pass play go beyond 40 yards last season and four in ’19. Josh Ali (54 grabs) is a good starting point, with tight ends Keaton Upshaw and Justin Rigg returning after combining for 28 receptions last fall. Allen Dailey and DeMarcus Harris are next on the stat sheet with 14 catches each in ’20. Every player here has to step up to help the offense grow in ’21, but help is also in the way in the form of the transfer portal. Former Nebraska receiver Wan’Dale Robinson will push for time this spring and should be an all-around playmaker for Coen. Additionally, Michigan State transfer Tre’Von Morgan provides size (6-6) on the outside, with ’21 signees Chauncey Magwood, Dekel Crowdus and Christian Lewis, along with ’20 prospects Earnest Sanders IV and Izayah Cummings, looking to earn playing time. Coen has options here, but this group needs a big spring to take a step forward when the actual games begin in the fall.

4. Restocking the Offensive Line

The Wildcats return three starters up front, but the two departures are significant. Left tackle Landon Young and center Drake Jackson are gone after earning All-SEC honors last season. But the news isn’t all bad for new line coach Eric Wolford this spring. Right tackle Darian Kinnard is back to anchor the unit after earning second-team All-SEC honors, with guards Kenneth Horsey and Luke Fortner returning to lead the way on the interior. How will Kentucky fill the voids up front? Kinnard could shift to left tackle, with true freshman Jager Burton (No. 138 overall recruit) likely to push for snaps on the interior. Jeremy Flax, Naasir Watkins, Nick Lewis, Deondre Buford and John Young are expected to be in the mix for the job at right tackle. Quintin Wilson was listed as the backup to Jackson at center last season and played 141 overall snaps (with six at center). While there’s some uncertainty here with the new starters, Kentucky’s offensive line should still be strong in ’21.

5. Plugging a Few Gaps on Defense

Kentucky has ranked inside of the top five in the SEC in scoring defense in each of the last three seasons. Only four starters are back in 2021, but there’s still a good foundation in place for Stoops and defensive coordinator Brad White. Each level will enter spring ball under the spotlight. Phil Hoskins and Quinton Bohanna are big losses up front, while Jamin Davis and Jamar Watson depart at linebacker. Cornerbacks Brandin Echols and Kelvin Joseph must be replaced. Former four-star prospect Justin Rogers should help in the trenches, while Jordan Wright and JJ Weaver are positioned to fill the void left behind by Watson off the edge after collecting 12 tackles for a loss last year. Cedrick Dort, Carrington Valentine and Andru Phillips are the frontrunners for snaps at cornerback.

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