Kentucky opens its 2022 spring practice as a program on the rise. The Wildcats won 10 games for the second time under coach Mark Stoops last fall, capped by a win over Iowa to finish with a 10-3 overall record and a No. 18 ranking in the final Associated Press poll.
Kentucky has only four seasons of 10 or more victories in its program history. Two of those occurred under Stoops’ watch. Building off last year’s success might be tough considering Georgia is entrenched once again as the SEC East favorite. However, the Wildcats return more than enough talent to finish in the top 25 and push for nine (or more) victories once again.
Quarterback Will Levis and running back Christopher Rodriguez headline the key returners on offense, but this unit will be under the direction of a new play-caller (Rich Scangarello) after Liam Coen departed Lexington to join the staff of the defending Super Bowl champions, the Los Angeles Rams. Defensive coordinator Brad White has some retooling to do, but the foundation is still in place to have one of the SEC’s better defenses in ’22.
Here’s a look at what’s on tap for Kentucky this spring:
5 Storylines to Watch During Kentucky's Spring Practices
1. Will Levis and a New Play-Caller
Kentucky’s offense showed marked improvement in one season under coordinator Liam Coen’s direction. The Wildcats averaged 21.8 points a game and 5.2 yards per play in 2020 but bumped those totals to 32.3 a contest and 6.4 a snap last year. In addition to the obvious on-field improvement, the former UMass quarterback was instrumental in helping Will Levis quickly transition to a starting role after transferring in from Penn State. Levis threw for 2,812 yards and 24 touchdowns and ran for 376 yards and nine scores in his Kentucky debut last fall. New play-caller Rich Scangarello arrives in Lexington after tutoring quarterbacks under Kyle Shanahan with the 49ers last year. Considering the familiarity between Shanahan and Sean McVay (where Coen coached before Kentucky), there shouldn’t be a major overhaul or scheme tweak coming in ’22. However, it’s up to Scangarello to keep Levis’ development on track as one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks.
2. Develop Playmakers at Receiver
Wan'Dale Robinson was only in Lexington for one season, but the Nebraska transfer made a huge impact. He was targeted on 140 of Kentucky’s passes, grabbing 104 of those for 1,348 yards and seven scores. Additionally, the team’s second-leading receiver (Josh Ali) is out of eligibility. This spring is all about identifying the next wave of playmakers for Levis. Transfers Javon Baker (Alabama) and Tayvion Robinson (Virginia Tech) are expected to play a prominent role in the passing game, while the Wildcats are also counting on increased contributions from Izayah Cummings, DeMarcus Harris, Chauncey Magwood, Dekel Crowdus and Chris Lewis.
3. Restock the Offensive Line
The Wildcats have ranked among the SEC’s best in the trenches over the last couple of seasons but maintaining that level of play will be tested in ’22. New line coach Zach Yenser has to replace three starters, including first-team All-SEC selections in Luke Fortner (center) and Darian Kinnard (tackle). Left tackle Dare Rosenthal also opted to depart early for the NFL. Kenneth Horsey and Eli Cox started at guard last fall but could shift to new positions. Incoming four-star prospect Kiyaunta Goodwin, Auburn transfer Tashawn Manning, and ’21 top recruit Jager Burton are a few names to watch this offseason in the mix for jobs along the line.
4. Reloading the Defensive Front
The effort to reload in the trenches continues on defense. Kentucky lost three key contributors – Josh Paschal, Marquan McCall and Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald – from a unit that helped to limit teams to just 122.1 rushing yards a game. The cupboard is far from bare, however. Octavious Oxendine, Justin Rogers, Tre’vonn Rybka and Josaih Hayes were all key members of the ’21 rotation and return this fall. Also, some of the concerns up front are alleviated with a strong group of linebackers returning.
5. New Faces in the Secondary
The Wildcats ranked 10th in the SEC and 79th nationally in pass efficiency defense last season. However, the secondary excelled at limiting big plays by allowing only five passes of 40-plus yards. Stoops and White open spring practice looking to replace three starters. Cornerback Cedrick Dort transferred to Wisconsin, while Davonte Robinson and safety Yusuf Corker are headed to the NFL. Tyrell Ajian is back at strong safety, with Carrington Valentine expected to hold a spot at cornerback after starting 12 games in ’21. Filling the other spot opposite of Valentine at cornerback is likely a bigger concern for Stoops than the open safety and nickel jobs going into spring ball. Could Kentucky look to the portal for help?
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