Breakdown of Mizzou’s SEC East competition this season: Kentucky Wildcats

The Kentucky Wildcats stack up to be a much different offense than in 2020 as longtime quarterback starter Terry Wilson transferred to New Mexico. Head coach Mark Stoops hired Liam Coen, an assistant under Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay, to be the Wildcats’ new offensive coordinator. After a quarterback battle between Penn State transfer Will Levis, junior Joey Greenwood and sophomore Beau Allen, Levis came out as the top guy on the depth chart and will take first-team reps heading into the season. 

Junior running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. is bound to step up after being a force in the backfield last season, averaging 6.6 yards per carry on his way to eleven touchdowns. He garnered those numbers while splitting carries with the now-gone Asim Rose, so it’s more than fair to expect volume higher than his 119 carries in 2020 – especially with Levis at quarterback as opposed to a more mobile Wilson. 

Coen identified practically the entire depth of the roster at running back when discussing usage distribution, noting that “those guys are all such capable catchers out of the backfield and also splitting them out wide,” hinting at the versatility that will trademark the 2021 Wildcats offense.

That versatility continues with Frankfort native and Nebraska transfer Wan’Dale Robinson, who was used significantly as a ball carrier and pass catcher under the Cornhuskers offense and brings elite agility and speed to the Wildcats. He’ll be a focal point in offensive plans, and 2020 leading receiver Josh Ali returns for his fifth year to work in tandem with Robinson. 

The offensive line returns three starters in one of the nation’s best tackles, senior Darian Kinnard, as well as a junior guard duo of Kenneth Horsey and Luke Fortner. LSU transfer Dare Rosenthal is a top candidate to fill in the right tackle spot now that Kinnard is expected to switch to the left side.

Two of the Wildcats’ most productive 2020 defensive assets, Jamin Davis and Jamar Watson, are now in the NFL, but Kentucky still brings back multiple athletes. Defensive end Josh Paschal and nose tackle Marquan McCall will be crucial pieces on the defensive line while the linebacker core of JJ Weaver, DeAndre Square, Marquez Bembry and Ole Miss transfer Jacquez Jones look to improve upon last season’s performance as the SEC squad with the fewest sacks per game. 

The Wildcats’ secondary loses one of the SEC’s top corners from 2020 in Kelvin Johnson. But an experienced group including Yusuf Corker, who finished second on the team in tackles last year along with two interceptions, and Tyrell Ajian will look to replicate its success in creating turnovers after leading the SEC in the category last year. The Wildcats also lost 2019 Ray Guy Award winner Max Duffy, who graduated last year.

Stoops has himself one of the most impressive teams throughout his tenure at Kentucky, and if Coen’s offense can translate in its first year of implementation, this is going to be a tough team to beat for any program. Mizzou’s first SEC East battle and second game of the year falls in Lexington and is bound to be not only a good litmus test for both teams, but also a fantastic matchup for any football fan. Kentucky has five athletes on the Preseason Media Days All-SEC teams and five on NCFAA watch lists.

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