First and 10: Overlooked novelty to first-round pick? Will Levis' rise is bananas
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
He’s not the banana guy anymore. Forget that novelty and embrace the reality.
Meet Will Levis, a true blue, bona fide quarterback.
From overlooked recruit to short-yardage runner, to Kentucky’s transfer quarterback who ate a banana, peel and all, and became a social media hero. Yet a funny thing happened along the way to hundreds of thousands of social media views.
The guy who ate the banana is the guy who swallowed whole his second opportunity and is now an elite quarterback in the best conference in college football.
From the project who couldn’t win a starting job to a future first-round NFL Draft pick.
“There are a lot of things along the way that went correctly for me, that if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here right now,” Levis says. “What’s in the past is in the past.”
But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t motivated him all along the way.
Run your finger down the list of 2018 Penn State signees. All those elite players, all those NFL Draft picks.
Micah Parson, Pat Freiermuth, Johan Dotson, Odafe Oweh … and Will Levis. Only kicker Jake Pinegar was a lower-rated recruit.
Penn State had to beat the likes of Albany, Ball State and Central Michigan for Levis, but did so when former offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead liked Levis’ tape and saw potential. But months before Levis stepped on campus, Moorhead took the Mississippi State job.
Over the next 3 years, Levis had 2 offensive coordinators and QB coaches, and would’ve had a third had he stayed and continued to be the short-yardage back and the changeup behind starter Sean Clifford.
He had become a cult hero of sorts in Happy Valley, this mythical Paul Bunyan of a quarterback who looked like a linebacker and played with the toughness and tenacity of an interior defensive lineman. He was Penn State’s Tim Tebow – without a legit opportunity to develop into more than the 4th-and-1 option.
So he hopped in the transfer portal, and wouldn’t you know it, schools weren’t exactly fighting for the graduate transfer with 2 years of eligibility and a career passing résumé of 3 TDs and 2 INTs. Then new Kentucky offensive coordinator Liam Coen called, and Levis jumped.
“A big guy, with a big arm and great knowledge of the game,” Coen said. “We can work with that.”
They were together for 1 season at Kentucky, and all Levis and Coen did was turn a run-based offense under uber-successful coach Mark Stoops — that not long ago used a wideout at quarterback for a majority of the season – straight into the 21st Century.
They won 10 games for the fourth time since they began playing football in the Commonwealth in 1892, and they beat rival Florida at home for the first time since the 1980s. The 80s, everyone.
Two years ago, when Kentucky won 8 games with wideout Lynn Bowden paying quarterback and running option, the offense threw the ball 74 times over the final 9 games.
Levis threw it 353 times last season, and will more than likely be leaned on heavily this fall with new offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello, who has promised to be “aggressive.” If there’s one thing that’s a given in Kentucky, it’s this: When you have a thoroughbred, ride it for all its worth.
From the guy no one wanted to the guy racing up 2023 NFL Draft boards.
“He’s still developing, but his ceiling is high, high. A first-day (draft) guy? Absolutely,” one NFL scout told me. “He’s far from a finished product, but you like what you see. Arm talent, manages the game, knows the game, a tough guy, completes plus-60% of his passes. If he gets to plus-70 this season, and we see more diverse throws on various levels …”
The scout stopped, and the emphasis was clear and concise.
“Look, that’s a really good program Mark (Stoops) has there,” he continued. “If (Levis) he takes that next step, they’re going to be a problem for a lot of people.”
2. The road to success
Think about this: Levis is rocketing up NFL Draft boards all over the league, and he’s doing so despite having 3 offensive coordinators and quarterbacks coaches over 4 seasons. This year will be 4 in 5.
Those numbers, though, were overshadowed by the only number that mattered: 2.
He could’ve stayed at Penn State – a school he loved, where his girlfriend is still a student – and maybe gotten the chance to play 1 season after starter Sean Clifford moved on – or he could’ve simply looked at the logistics of the move.
The NFL wants game tape. If he left Penn State last season, he’d have 2 years instead of 1.
Clifford, by the way, stayed this year for his 6th super senior season.
“I loved my time at Penn State, loved playing football there, had teammates that will be buddies for life,” Levis said. “I had to trust my gut. What would I need to do at this level in order to reach my goals and play at the next level? More film.”
If Year 1 was an introduction to big-time college football, Year 2 must be a breakout. Levis had a TD/INT ratio of 24/13, but in SEC games, it dropped to 13/8.
It’s decision-making, it’s comfort level, it’s confidence.
“Everything has to get better in Year 2,” another NFL scout said. “Look what (Joe) Burrow did at LSU his first season, and how it all changed in Year 2. That’s not an on-field comparison, that’s a new quarterback comparison – a guy who didn’t play but knew he had 2 years to make it happen or he wasn’t playing in this league. It took Burrow a year to fully develop. He was barely on the radar going into his last season at LSU.”
Burrow had 16 TDs and 5 INTs his junior year at LSU, but was 8 TDs/4 INTs in SEC games. Then 2019 happened.
“It took 4-5 games for me to get into a rhythm and a groove,” Levis said. “Beginning in the middle of the season, I got more comfortable with myself running the show. Just getting all the reps with the 1s in practice and preparing for each game. I’ve never felt more prepared than I am now.”
3. The true QB, The Epilogue
South Carolina QB Spencer Rattler told me last month when he decided to enter the transfer portal, he had to turn off his phone within minutes of the news going public.
It wouldn’t stop ringing from texts and calls from all over the college football landscape.
“Worse than high school recruiting,” Rattler said.
Meanwhile, we give you the story of Levis.
“Not many people believed in my ability,” Levis said. “There weren’t many teams that reached out to me. But Kentucky did. I didn’t have the best high school film. I played in Connecticut, and it’s not exactly a hotbed of high school talent and we really didn’t throw the ball that much. I knew I had the physical traits to be a quarterback. All I lacked was the experience.”
Levis isn’t your typical transfer portal player. He didn’t arrive at Kentucky last spring; he was busy graduating from Penn State. His first practice at UK was the first practice in 2021 camp.
It didn’t take long to see what Kentucky had.
“The ball jumps off his hand,” Stoops said. “We looked at each other like, ‘OK, we’ve got something here.’”
Now Stoops says Levis can be the first quarterback taken in next year’s NFL Draft. Two scouts I spoke with last week say that’s not hyperbole.
Both scouts, without prompting, brought up the meteoric rise of Burrow.
From a project recruit, to a run-only option, to Joe Burrow comparisons.
He’s not the banana guy anymore.
“It was so cool to see my teammates get drafted,” Levis said. “There’s a long way to go between now, this season, and playing well enough to be considered by the NFL. I don’t know what I’ll be doing on draft day next year, but knowing my journey, it will be tough for me to not cry.”
4. The third option
If we’ve learned anything from Brian Kelly’s time as a head coach, it’s his ability to zig when you think he should zag with the quarterback position.
Everywhere he has coached – the FBS level and the NCAA lower divisions – Kelly has produced elite quarterbacks with one common foundation: What you did yesterday has no impact on what happens tomorrow.
Translation: Just because LSU QBs Myles Brennan and Jayden Daniels have an edge in experience, it doesn’t mean redshirt freshman Garrett Nussmeier isn’t a legit factor in the QB race.
In fact, Nussmeier played as well or better than Brennan and Daniels this spring.
If you don’t think the race is wide open, consider what Kelly said last month after his first spring game at LSU.
“There is a young man that has an incredible amount of confidence,” Kelly said. “He is going to make ‘fit in a phone booth’ type throws as well as anybody I’ve been around. He’s got the makeup of a great quarterback, but there’s been this development, technically, that has been, from my standpoint, nice to see.”
One LSU staffer told me Nussmeier reminds Kelly of former Notre Dame QB Ian Book: a tough, athletic and talented thrower that teammates love to play for.
Book began his career behind heralded recruit Brandon Wimbush, and eventually was too good in practice and games to keep on the sideline. Nussmeier made similar strides this spring, forcing his way into more reps with the 1s and then performing well in the spring game.
He’s no longer a long shot, and he might just be the quarterback with the most upside.
5. The Weekly Five
Denny Thompson, owner and trainer at Six Points Jacksonville QB Training, gives 5 things his student, Florida QB Anthony Richardson, needs to sharpen this summer to reach “his elite potential.”
1. Footwork and framing.
2. Throwing on time and with anticipation.
3. Accuracy on all throws.
4. Progressions, seeing/reading the field.
5. Playing with poise.
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout analyzes a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Alabama S Jordan Battle.
“He’s really athletic and long, and he’s playing in the box all the time there. He likes mixing it up. But the reality is he’s not a big guy; he’s probably 200 pounds. He’s thin, and he might get physically overwhelmed here. His coverage skills are average.
“This is a big year for him to show what he can as a true 2-high (safety). He needs to show he can not only recognize in coverage but that he can break on the ball and be disruptive.
“He plays too safe at times, almost like the goal is to do your job, be in your spot. He’s a guy that disrupts in blitz packages, but I’d love to see him become a guy who is disruptive in coverage.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: ranking the defensive lines.
1. Alabama: It begins with the best player in college football (OLB/DE Will Anderson), and emerging star OLB/DE Dallas Turner. They will be an absolute freak show for offenses to defend. If one of the two senior DTs (Byron Young, DJ Dale) splashes in an NFL money year, the unit will be fantastic.
2. Georgia: Jalen Carter is the best interior player in the nation. And it’s not close. The intriguing developments for 2022 should come from former mega recruit OLB/DE Nolan Smith on the edge. OLB/DE Robert Beal is strong and fast and will cause problems on the other side, and 300-pound Tyrion Ingram-Dawkins is a massive anchor end with terrific athletic ability.
3. LSU: Maason Smith is one of the best interior players in the nation. DE BJ Ojulari is a force off the edge, and the addition of dynamic transfer DE Mekhi Wingo (Missouri) will prevent teams from consistently doubling Ojulari.
4. Texas A&M: As many as 3 or 4 interior and edge players from the heralded 2022 recruiting class – Gabriel Brownlow-Dindy, Walter Nolen, Shemar Stewart – will likely play. Sophomore DTs McKinnley Jackson (2020) and Shemar Turner (2021), elite recruits from previous classes, are poised for big seasons in 2022.
5. Kentucky: A nearly completely revamped starting group, but plenty of talent and guys who have played well in spots, including DTs Justin Rogers, Tre’Vonn Rybka and Octavious Oxendine. Can Ohio State transfer Darrion Henry-Young develop into a force off the edge?
6. Florida: This is an NFL money season for DE Brenton Cox, who has the speed and athleticism to dominate but hasn’t consistently produced. He needs help on the other side (Tyreak Sapp?). The middle, potentially, could be dangerous with Gervon Dexter and Desmond Watson.
7. Auburn: 7 defensive linemen entered the portal, but OLB/DE Derick Hall (9 sacks) returning was critical. He could’ve left for the NFL, or the portal. DE Colby Wooden (5 sacks in 2021) is a proven disrupter off the edge. The Tigers are solid inside with DTs Marcus Harris and Marquis Burks.
8. Mississippi State: Jordan Davis, the team’s best pass rusher, missed 2021 with a knee injury but returns for 2022. There’s experience on the edge with OLB/DE Tyrus Wheat (7.5 sacks) and DE Randy Charlton. The Bulldogs need more push from the interior.
9. Ole Miss: Rebels hit the portal hard here, too, and there’s hope that transfer DEs Jared Ivey (Georgia Tech) and Khari Coleman (TCU) can combine with Tavius Robinson to give Ole Miss an athletic presence on the edge.
10. Arkansas: An area of concern last season, especially in pass rush. The addition of DE/OLB Drew Sanders (Alabama) will improve the ability to get pressure, as will Georgia Tech transfer DE Jordan Domineck and sophomore Zach Williams. Late portal addition DT Terry Hampton (Arkansas State) will help on the inside.
11. South Carolina: The interior is strong with DT Zacch Pickens, who could be a first-round pick in 2023. It’s time for DE Jordan Burch to play to his 5-star level, and NS State transfer Terrell Dawkins could give help off the edge.
12. Missouri: Trajan Jeffcoat has been inconsistent but is uber-talented. He’s playing for NFL money this season. Transfers Ian Matthews (Auburn) and Jayden Jernigan (Oklahoma State) must play well.
13. Tennessee: Byron Young could develop into one of the better edge rushers in the SEC. But after that, plenty of questions. Freshmen Jordan Phillips and Tyre West are expected to play immediately.
14. Vanderbilt: 6 defensive linemen left for the transfer portal, and Daevion Davis (knee) may not be ready for the start of 2022. That leaves Cal Poly transfer Myles Cecil as the top option.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: Who is the hot coordinator in the SEC? Who is the one guy you’d like to see get a shot at a big-time job? — Scott Pleasant, Atlanta
I have no idea how Mike Leach has kept Zach Arnett in Starkville the past 2 seasons, when Texas, LSU and Oregon – among others – have tried to hire him away.
He’s young (35) and highly regarded in the coaching fraternity, and is a terrific recruiter and developer of talent. He’s a lot like former Clemson OC Tony Elliott, a talented assistant who turned down numerous OC and head coaching jobs before finally taking the Virginia job.
Arnett’s defenses have performed at a high level in Starkville, despite Leach’s pass-happy and risk-taking offenses. Arnett knew the deal when he accepted the job to be Leach’s DC, and hasn’t cut and run for a bigger job.
If you’re looking for a current college football comparison, look at Dave Aranda. He spent years building elite defenses at Wisconsin and LSU (and turned down other jobs), before taking the Baylor job and flourishing. Arnett will follow that track.
29. We’ve heard all spring about the young remaining talent on the Georgia defense, and how the Bulldogs won’t lose much from the elite unit of 2021.
But understand this: Georgia returns only 29% of defensive explosion plays (sacks and QB pressures). Those explosion plays were the key to everything on the unit, and particularly how it affected the quarterback.
Only 17.5 sacks of the 49 from 2021 return, and 84 of the 294 QB pressures. There’s no debate about young talent – LB Jamon Dumas-Johnson, DTs Zion Logue and Nazir Stackhouse, to name a few – but there is a question about production. How much will there be, and how quickly does the talent translate to the field?
10. Quote to note
Levis, on NIL: “At the very least, it’s nice to be able to make a couple of bucks before we leave. But it’s important to keep the main thing the main thing, and that’s playing football. To get anything in this game, the only way to do it is by improving as a player. Not putting too much time and effort into marketing your brand.”