We’re still waiting on the spring ball dates for the University of Kentucky football program, but it doesn’t mean we should delay previewing it. There are a ton of juicy storylines surrounding the program after what has been a busy offseason since the Gator Bowl ended and the spring will be first taste of what the 2021 team will be.
From some brand new coaches on the offensive side of the ball to a handful of transfer additions, talking points won’t run dry as we navigate through the 15 practices. Despite all that, position battles are what we should be really paying attention to. In these specific units we will find some fierce competition and the individuals who gain an edge early could be the players we see when the season begins on Labor Day weekend.
Here are the six most intriguing position battles we’ll be following on KSR this spring session.
There is no hiding from the fact that this is a program that has dealt with issues at the quarterback spot and the biggest reason for a play-caller change was to get improvement at the sport’s most important position. Liam Coen made a splash pretty early landing Penn State quarterback Will Levis, but the grad transfer will not arrive until after the spring semester is over. For now, all eyes are on No. 2 and No. 11.
Both Beau Allen and Joey Gatewood are entering their second season with the program and both had high expectations when they were landed on the recruiting trail. After a year serving in a backup role, the job is there for the taking for both. However, with Levis looming, that is making this spring very important for the pair. If someone is going to make a move, it will have to be within these upcoming 15 practices.
Allen still feels like the eventual long-term answer for the program so it is likely that the staff will be willing to be more patient giving the Lexington Catholic product time to develop. Meanwhile, Gatewood is entering his redshirt junior year and it feels like now or never.
We still have a lot to learn about Coen, but how this QB battle shakes out could tell us a lot about the intermediate future. Roll with the fellow New England native he plucked from the Big Ten or ride with what the previous staff left behind?
For those of you that haven’t been paying attention to the NFL Draft process, Kelvin Joseph seems poised to become the program’s first ever secondary player to become a first-round pick. He is blowing up in a big way among the draft community. Meanwhile, Brandin Echols was one of the better corners in the SEC the last two seasons and he is also off to the pros.
That leaves a pretty gaping hole on the perimeter just two years after having to replace multi-year starters Derrick Baity, Lonnie Johnson and Chris Westry. It’s once again back to the drawing board for Mark Stoops, Brad White and Steve Clinkscale. At least this time they have some experience.
Cedrick Dort Jr. has played 31 games in his career and the redshirt senior has 13 starts. We can probably go ahead and pencil him in, but finding No. 2 is where the challenge is. Redshirt freshman Carrington Valentine surprised a ton of people last year and started the last two games of the season following Joseph’s opt out. Jamari Brown has played in 15 career games and the redshirt junior will be in the mix. Meanwhile, fellow redshirt freshman Andru Phillips has plenty of potential.
There are plenty of bodies of available, but it is a lot of proven production to replace. A tall task awaits for a group that didn’t have a lot of recruiting star power out of high school. Don’t be surprised if safety Quandre Mosely is also used at corner similar to what we saw in the Gator Bowl.
3.) Interior Defensive Line
Quinton Bohanna has moved on and unfortunately Phil Hoskins is not returning for his Van Wilder year in Lexington. That means UK’s two most proven interior pieces are out. There is still Josh Paschal lining up at 3-4 defensive end to anchor the group, but there are a lot of questions for position coach Anwar Stewart to answer.
This is where that class of 2020 should come into play.
Josaih Hayes, Octavious Oxendine and Justin Rogers all got a cup of coffee as true freshmen in 2020, but this upcoming season is when Kentucky will need this talented group to start playing to their potential. Meanwhile, fellow classmate Tre’vonn Rybka will be jockeying for playing time behind Paschal.
Fan favorite Marquan McCall steps in at nose and the senior from Detroit needs to be a steadying force for the defense. Elsewhere, upperclassmen Qua Mahone, Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald and Isaiah Gibson will be looking to lockdown spots in the rotation.
This figures to be a fierce position battle at multiple positions and could be one that easily lingers into the season. Best case scenario is that UK has a three-down rotation that can run eight-deep.
4.) X Receiver
Jovon Bouknight is back for his second season in Lexington and more proven pieces certainly return. Wan’Dale Robinson provides the roster with a major talent influx while Josh Ali coming back for this fifth year. These two give the Wildcats two legit SEC wideouts and that is not something the program has had very often in the last decade. However, they still need a third.
Isaiah Epps returned from injury late last season and the redshirt senior showed some promise in the last month. Allen Dailey Jr. got most of the starts at the X receiver spot last season and the senior has 23 career receptions. In the meantime, Izayah Cummings got some run as a true freshman. Michigan State transfer Tre’Von Morgan could very well factor into this battle if he receives a waiver to play.
It is important to remember that this X position needs to have some physicality and release ability of the line as you are often pressed by corners in as you’re lined up to the weakside of the formation. Blue-chipper Christian Lewis will be plugged into this spot in the summer while returnees DeMarcus Harris and Bryce Oliver seem better suited for Z behind Ali.
Epps and Dailey are both seniors, but there are only so many snaps. It feels like one of them is going to win this job while youngsters Cummings and Lewis could push for playing time. This is going to be a fierce battle to see who wins out and who the new play-caller favors.
5.) Right Tackle
Darian Kinnard has made it public that he will be moving to the left side for his senior season and that means that Kentucky must find a new right tackle. Kinnard’s shift helps plug a very important hole, but now the Wildcats must replace what has been one of the best right tackles in college football the last two years. New offensive line coach Eric Wolford will have plenty of options.
Naasir Watkins is a redshirt senior who has played in 25 games and has one start in his career. Jeremy Flax was a blue-chip junior college recruit and the Michigan native has a ton of potential. Nick Lewis is a mountain of a man who is a redshirt junior and seems poised to contribute. John Young was another blue-chipper who redshirted last year while true freshman Jager Burton is in for the spring and has the size and skill to play as a true freshman.
Wolford enters his first year with four solid answers, but the right tackle spot is just a monster question mark. There are a ton of options on the table and the legwork this spring will set the table for who starts against ULM when the fighting Terry Bowden’s come to The Kroge.
6.) Mike Linebacker
Jamin Davis was a surprise departure following the 2020 season and that now creates a pretty big hole in the middle of UK’s defense. For the second year in a row, UK must find a new starter at Mike and that is not even considering the unexpected loss of Chris Oats. That’s a lot of turnover Kentucky has to deal with.
Jared Casey was a big recruiting win for the program in the class of 2019 as Vince Marrow flipped the Louisville Ballard product from Oregon. After a redshirt season in 2019, we saw Casey burst onto the scene last year to record 20 tackles playing mainly Will. Marquez Bembry is back for his senior season and the former Tennessee commit started two games last year and recorded 27 tackles. However, the wild card of the bunch is a former low three-star recruit out of South Georgia.
D’Eryk Jackson was perhaps the least heralded recruit in that stacked class of 2020, but to open the season against Auburn he was the primary backup at Mike. At 245 pounds, he brings great size to the position and is a wood-splitting tackler. Don’t sleep on him.
Michigan State transfer Luke Fulton is on campus and he’ll also be a player thrown into the mix. Trevin Wallace is coming this summer and it could be hard to keep the top-150 recruit off of the field. Meanwhile, Martez Thrower was also a nice recruiting win out of the South Georgia area coming to help.
Mike is a very important position and Jon Sumrall needs to find an answer this spring. There is a nice blend of young star power to go with some playing experience. They should be able to find a quality player in this bunch, but turning over the position three years in a row is definitely suboptimal.