Changes coming to Kentucky’s offense

Kentucky wide receiver Isaiah Epps (81) catches a pass guarded by Kentucky defensive back Cedrick Dort Jr. (3) during an open practice in Lexington, Ky., Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Clubb)

Hunter Shelton

Mark Stoops has changed almost everything about Kentucky football since his arrival in 2013.

From the program’s culture to the onfield product, UK is no longer a SEC bottom-dweller searching for multiple conference victories; the team has established itself as a legitimate SEC East contender.

At the forefront of Kentucky’s rise is the defense. Finishing in the top half of team total defense in the SEC every year since 2018, defensive coordinator Brad White has propelled UK’s standard in many ways.

The offensive side of the ball has left a bit more to be desired. Kentucky has finished no better than eighth in SEC team total offense since the arrival of coach Stoops. Whether it be the playbook, the lack of a passing game or sheer lack of talent, the Wildcats have not been able to put up points in bulk when needed.

This offseason, some changes for which many fans have yearned finally came to fruition. Kentucky parted ways with offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw. Gran created a powerful rushing attack during his tenure from 2016 to 2020, but he failed to find a way to consistently march the Wildcats down the field on a weekly basis.

Now, Mark Stoops has a new man at the helm of the offense, someone with experience and success at the professional level that could turn Kentucky into a powerhouse on both sides of the football.

Liam Coen comes to the Bluegrass after spending the 2020 season as the Los Angeles Rams assistant quarterbacks coach. Coen brings a spread style of offense that is going to seem brand new to Big Blue Nation in 2021.

“I am very impressed with Liam’s depth of knowledge and detail of coaching that he has obtained as an NFL and college coach,” Stoops said. “He will bring an exciting style of football, attacking all areas of the field, a style that will be exciting for players to play and for fans to watch.”

The addition of Coen has Kentucky poised to take their offense to the next level. Some key returning players, alongside some incoming transfers and freshmen, provide Coen with plenty of new and shiny talent that he can use to build his playbook just the way he likes it.

But who will be at the top of Kentucky’s offense in 2021?

A high-profile quarterback battle finished towards the end of fall camp, with junior Penn State transfer Will Levis coming out on top over junior Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood and sophomore Beau Allen.

Coen credited Levis’ work ethic and “the way he came in and ran the show” as reasons why he won the starting job. “Obviously you can see some of the arm strength talent and some of the things he can do throwing the football,” Coen said. “I think right now he gives us the best chance to win.”

Levis spent three seasons with Penn State before transferring to UK. He played in 15 games for the Nittany Lions, racking up just 644 passing yards and hurling three touchdowns and two interceptions.

Levis brings the dual-threat option to the table for Coen, but fans should not expect the Madison, Connecticut, native to roll-out at will. Coen will provide more opportunities for the Cats to take the top off of the defense and hurl a few deep balls.

Following the announcement of Levis winning the quarterback battle, Coach Stoops announced that Gatewood would be leaving Kentucky, entering his name into the transfer portal and solidifying Allen as the second string.

With Levis under center, BBN will see the most arm talent a UK quarterback has possessed during Stoops’ tenure. But who will be the receivers collecting passes from the junior?

Josh Ali returns for his senior season after hauling in 54 catches for 473 yards a season ago. Nebraska transfer and Kentucky native Wan’Dale Robinson will be sure to provide a boon to the Kentucky offense. The junior amassed 1,725 all-purpose yards in his two seasons with the Cornhuskers.

Outside of Ali and Robinson, there are no shoe-ins for production. Senior Isaiah Epps and redshirt sophomore Tae Tae Crumes will look to pick up receptions alongside redshirt junior Rahsaan Lewis, son of NFL Hall of Famer Ray Lewis.

Coach Coen knows that depth at the wide receiver spot may be an issue, but he believes in the talent of his younger players at the position.

“Obviously, the more depth we can add to that position the better,” Coen said. “But I do feel good about some of the young guys, they had a solid training camp so far, we just got to get them a little more work with the older guys.”

At the tight-end position, the Wildcats will start the season without Keaton Upshaw, as he suffered a “significant” injury before fall camp began, and there is currently no timetable for his return. Starting in his place will be redshirt senior Justin Rigg, returning for his sixth year by taking advantage of the NCAA’s ruling to grant an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Rigg averaged 12.1 yards-per-catch in 2020.

While depth may be something to worry about at the receiver spot for the Wildcats, the running back room remains as deep as usual.

Chris Rodriguez Jr. is back after a breakout 2020 season in which he accumulated 785 yards and 11 touchdowns. The junior returns with a laundry list of preseason accolades, highlighted by being named to the Doak Walker Award watch list, recognizing the country’s best running backs, as well as the Maxwell Award watch list, recognizing the best players in college football.

“It’s my job and our job as an offensive staff to find different ways for (Rodriguez) to touch the football, as opposed to turning around and giving him the ball,” Coen said.

Right behind Rodriguez is junior Kavosiey Smoke. Smoke played in just seven of Kentucky’s 11 games in 2020, tallying 229 yards on 47 carries. In his redshirt freshman season, Smoke averaged 6.1 yards-per-attempt and will look to regain that form in his fourth season suiting up for UK.

Freshman running back La’Vell Wright and sophomore Michael Drennen II will likely see snaps out of the backfield as well, in a rushing and receiving role.

The UK offense features some superstar caliber athletes that can take the team to a new level, but the stars will only shine as bright as the offensive line lets them.

Graded by Pro Football Focus as college football’s top run-blocking tackle for the 2021 season, Darian Kinnard leads a talented group of linemen for new offensive line coach Eric Wolford.

Kinnard’s counterpart at left tackle, Dare Rosenthal, comes to the Wildcats after transferring from LSU. Rosenthal started eight games at the position for the Tigers over the past two seasons.

“[Dare’s] got an athletic skill set. In summer training, the latter part of July, we had him over 20 miles per hour, so he’s a guy who can run. He’s got length obviously and he’s gotten a lot of reps there,” Wolford said.

Staffing the guard positions for the Wildcats are Kenneth Horsey and Eli Cox. Horsey started in all eight games he played in last season, earning the 2020 Mayo Clinic Comeback Player of the Year award after returning from open-heart surgery in 2018. Cox, a Kentucky native who backed up Horsey last season, moved over to the right guard position in 2021.

Returning for a final year in Lexington, Luke Fortner moved over from right guard to man the center position, taking over for former Kentucky mainstay Drake Jackson. Fortner was graded out at 82.9 percent with 26 knockdowns and 146 blocks at the point of attack in the 2020 season, suiting himself up nicely for the center position.

Mark Stoops and Liam Coen are equipped with multiple weapons for the upcoming 2021 campaign. If the defense remains sturdy, the Wildcats may finally be poised to make the next step needed to reach for the SEC crown.