Kentucky entered the coronavirus-shortened 2020 season with high expectations, but an SEC-only schedule underscored the gap that still exists between the Wildcats and the top tier in the East division.
Several key members of the 2020 team are back to lead Kentucky this fall, but Mark Stoops' program should look significantly different than in recent years. Stoops fired offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw in December and hired Los Angeles Rams assistant Liam Coen as his new offensive coordinator in hopes that Sean McVay's system could be adapted to college football.
"You also have an obligation to make sure we're progressing and having an offense that is exciting to watch, that puts fans in the stands," Stoops said after firing Gran. "We need that. We need to attract the right guys in recruiting and constantly move forward."
Previewing Kentucky's Offense for 2021
Kentucky and three-year starter Terry Wilson parted ways after a disappointing 2020 season, with Wilson entering the transfer portal and landing at New Mexico. Joey Gatewood, Beau Allen and Penn State transfer Will Levis will compete for the starting job. Levis, who threw for 421 yards and ran for 260 as Penn State's backup, might be the favorite considering he was recruited by Coen in high school and was hand-picked by the new offensive coordinator as a transfer target.
Coen was hired to bring more balance to the offense, but the running game should remain a strength with junior Chris Rodriguez Jr. back after ranking fifth in the SEC in rushing yards per game (87.2) despite splitting carries last season. Junior running back Kavosiey Smoke offers a dynamic change of pace as a home-run threat but has struggled to stay healthy.
With Coen promising to develop a more competent passing attack, senior wide receiver Josh Ali elected to use the extra year of eligibility to return to school. He and Nebraska transfer Wan'Dale Robinson, a 2019 Paul Hornung Award finalist, should form an exciting one-two punch for whoever wins the quarterback battle. Tight ends Justin Rigg and Keaton Upshaw could thrive in Coen's system.
No position on UK's roster faces more turnover than the offensive line following the graduation of All-SEC center Drake Jackson and left tackle Landon Young. The Wildcats were also rocked by the death of former offensive line coach John Schlarman, who served as the heart of UK's program during a two-year battle with a rare form of cancer. All-America candidate Darian Kinnard elected to return to Kentucky rather than enter the NFL Draft and will shift to left tackle. Senior right guard Luke Fortner offered the group another boost when he elected to use the extra year of eligibility.
Previewing Kentucky's Defense for 2021
Kentucky must replace seven starters on defense, including two underclassmen who declared for the NFL Draft. Still, there is a veteran nucleus to build around, led by defensive end Josh Paschal, linebacker DeAndre Square and safety Yusuf Corker.
Senior nose guard Marquan McCall was one of the standouts of spring practice and looks poised to blossom into a star, four years after signing with Kentucky as the No. 1 prospect in the 2018 Michigan prep class. Kentucky needs a much-hyped group of 2020 defensive linemen signees, led by five-star prospect Justin Rogers, to take on larger roles in their second year in the program.
Losing middle linebacker Jamin Davis to the NFL Draft leaves a massive hole in the heart of Kentucky's defense, but Square was already the group's leader and is being counted on to take another step forward. Michigan State transfer Luke Fulton and four-star signee Trevin Wallace will compete to fill Davis' spot at middle linebacker. It won't be a surprise if Wallace wins the job.
After ranking last in the SEC in sacks per game, Kentucky needs to find a more consistent pass rush but may have to do so early in the season without sophomore outside linebacker J.J. Weaver as he works his way back from a torn ACL. Senior outside linebacker Jordan Wright needs to step up with Jamar "Boogie" Watson, the team's leader in sacks and tackles for a loss, having graduated.
Kentucky lost both its starting cornerbacks, but senior Cedrick Dort Jr. started 12 games in 2019 and regained his starting spot after Kelvin Joseph opted out of the final two games last season. Safety should be the strength of the defense with Corker, fellow starter Tyrell Ajian and fifth-year senior Davonte Robinson all back.
Previewing Kentucky's Specialists for 2021
It will be difficult to replace 2019 Ray Guy Award winner Max Duffy, but Kentucky dipped back into its Australian punter pipeline to sign Wilson Berry, the younger brother of Steelers punter Jordan Berry. Walk-on kicker Matt Ruffolo will use his extra year of eligibility after hitting 12-of-14 field goals in 2020, turning a major question mark into a strength.
If Kentucky can find a quarterback, if Coen's offense provides a more balanced attack and if several young backups on defense thrive in larger roles, there is reason to hope Kentucky can cash in on the 2020 preseason hype a year late. That is a long list of ifs, though, proving that there is no shortage of questions that need answers before it's safe to pick the Wildcats as a contender in the East.
National Ranking: 35
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(Chris Rodriguez Jr. photo by Jacob Noger/UK Athletics)