Expectations are on the rise for Kentucky football.
After going 41 years without a 10-win season, the Wildcats have now reached that plateau twice in the last four years. There are several big holes to fill from last season’s Citrus Bowl winners, but the 2022 roster was boosted by multiple NFL draft prospects returning to school and several important defenders electing to use the extra year of eligibility granted all players in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The return of quarterback Will Levis is the primary cause for optimism. Levis already has proven himself as Kentucky’s best quarterback in more than a decade, and there is genuine reason to believe he can develop into an early-round NFL draft pick with another year in Lexington.
Levis cannot mount an SEC East challenge alone, though. How Kentucky answers the questions around him will determine if the Wildcats can make a push for Atlanta.
Previewing Kentucky's Offense for 2022
Gone are offensive coordinator Liam Coen, who returned to the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams, and star wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, who broke the Kentucky single-season records for catches and receiving yards in his one season as a Wildcat. Head coach Mark Stoops hopes to build on Coen’s success in returning balance to Kentucky’s offense by replacing him with former San Francisco 49ers quarterbacks coach Rich Scangarello, who will run a similar offense from the same Sean McVay/Kyle Shanahan coaching tree.
Replacing Robinson will be difficult, but Kentucky signed transfer wide receiver Tayvion Robinson (Virginia Tech). Javon Baker was slated to join the team, but the transfer from Alabama will instead land elsewhere. Robinson is unlikely to duplicate Wan’Dale Robinson’s record-breaking season, but between the Virginia Tech transfer and a highly touted group of freshmen led by four-star prospects Barion Brown and Dane Key, the passing game should be less reliant on one receiver. Tight end Keaton Upshaw could be a go-to receiver, too, after missing the entire 2021 season with injury.
There is no question about who will throw to those receivers. Levis could have entered the draft this year but saw room for even more improvement after just one season as a starter. Last season, Levis became the first Kentucky quarterback to total 3,000 yards of offense since 2014 while producing 33 touchdowns on the ground and through the air.
Running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. needs 1,134 yards to break Benny Snell Jr.’s Kentucky career rushing record. Fumbles were an issue for Rodriguez at times last season, but his physical rushing style should make him one of the best backs in the SEC this fall. Kentucky must replace two NFL draft picks on the offensive line, but the new-look “Big Blue Wall” received positive reviews this spring, especially at the interior positions.
Previewing Kentucky's Defense for 2022
Fears of a complete overhaul of Kentucky’s defense were lessened when safety Tyrell Ajian and linebackers DeAndre Square, Jacquez Jones and Jordan Wright elected to use their extra year of eligibility to return to Lexington. Still, at least four new starters will be needed on a unit that will depend on some of the highest-rated recruits in program history to step into featured roles.
With Josh Paschal and Marquan McCall moving on to the NFL, it is finally time for the much-hyped 2020 defensive line class to carry the load. That group is led by former five-star signee Justin Rogers at nose guard. Octavious Oxendine, Tre’vonn Rybka and Josaih Hayes, all four-star prospects in the 2020 class, will join Rogers up front.
The super senior linebackers will not need to carry the load alone at the defense’s second level thanks to the presence of edge rusher J.J. Weaver and promising young inside linebackers Trevin Wallace and D’Eryk Jackson. The hope is that a deep linebacker rotation allows Kentucky to use more of its base 3-4 defense than a year ago while keeping everyone fresh.
Safety should be the strength of the secondary with Ajian back and junior Jalen Geiger taking over a starting role. Cornerback is a question, though, with only one player on the roster, junior Carrington Valentine, bringing any significant game experience to the group. A season-ending knee injury suffered by nickel back Vito Tisdale in the spring adds to the depth concerns.
Stoops landed two key additions to the secondary via the transfer portal in Keidron Smith from Ole Miss and Zion Childress from Texas State, but Kentucky may still need immediate contributions from its 2022 high school class to supplement depth. Four-star edge rushers Keaten Wade and Tyreese Fearbry lead that group, but athlete Kobi Albert could contribute in the secondary, too.
Previewing Kentucky's Specialists for 2022
The extra year of eligibility helped this group, with former walk-on Matt Ruffolo returning at kicker. Ruffolo doesn’t have the strongest leg, but he has brought consistency to the position the last two years. Australian Wilson Berry is likely to punt. Robinson proved capable of contributing in the return game at Virginia Tech, but Stoops has generally taken a conservative approach in that department.
The gap between Georgia and the rest of the SEC East remains sizable, but if Kentucky can address a few of the remaining concerns on the roster either through the transfer portal or incoming freshman class, Stoops’ squad should be able to mount a case as the biggest challenger to Georgia in the division.
National Ranking: 21
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