First and 10: Win 10 again? That's the new standard at Kentucky. Yes, Kentucky
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
Mark Stoops began with the obvious on the last day of the 2021 season. Little did he know, it suddenly became the expectation.
“It’s not easy to win 10 games,” Stoops said.
Now, the problem: Stoops and Kentucky have done it twice in the past 4 seasons, and we all know what that means in the gotta have it, don’t care about excuses world of college football.
Ten wins aren’t enough anymore.
Forget that Kentucky, prior to Stoops’ arrival, had won double-digit games twice in the program’s history – once winning 11 with a coach named Bear, and he had a pretty good run at Alabama when momma called him home.
So excuse us, Big Blue Nation, if we tug those reins just a bit before diving deep into the idea that 10 wins is now the standard at Kentucky — and the goals are now much higher.
No matter what quarterback Will Levis said after the 10th win of the season against Iowa; no matter how Stoops has turned Kentucky into a legitimate threat on and off the field with recruiting (more on that later) and development, maybe it’s time to – in the words of Stoops – embrace just how tough it is for anyone (Kentucky, specifically) to win 10 games.
Before we unfold the hype of what could be the greatest Kentucky season in decades, let’s understand what the Wildcats are dealing with.
— A new offensive coordinator.
— A new offensive line coach.
— The rebound of Florida and Tennessee, and the clear momentum at South Carolina.
— And, of course, expectations.
“Coach Stoops deserves all the credit in the world for what he has done with this program,” Levis said. “(10 wins) is the standard now. We have to hold everyone else to the standard on the team.”
There’s no wiggle room in that statement, no backing down from a football program that for decades was a way to pass time until Midnight Madness arrived in October and basketballs filled the air.
Now they’re playing meaningful games in October, and twice in the past 4 seasons, the month of November. Now they’re beating blue bloods in the SEC and outside it for elite recruits.
They reasserted themselves in the Tennessee and Florida rivalries, after decades of futility. They’ve won 7 of 8 vs. South Carolina, and the last step in the SEC East Division is the same obstacle for everyone else in college football (Georgia).
But understand this: As UK begins spring practice Tuesday, as the program prepares for a statement season with a handful of key seniors foregoing NFL careers for one last shot in Lexington and with a roster bolstered by key transfer portal signings and the best recruiting class in program history, 10 wins – 10 wins! – is a remarkable bar now set by patient and persistent heavy lifting from a coach who could’ve left the program long ago.
Stoops stayed in Lexington, and the university made it easier with significant pay raises — the last in December pushing him into the top-15 paid coaches in the nation. The deal, which begins at $6.75 annually in 2022 and will reach $8 million by 2027, is full of incentives in an effort to keep Stoops.
The one incentive that stands out among the rest: Every time Kentucky wins 7 games, the contract is extended another year — or another $8 million payday. If the Wildcats win 10, it’s extended by 2 years — or $16 million.
Translation: Fans aren’t the only ones setting a new bar for Kentucky football.
2. Winning football
The most impressive part of Stoops’ tenure at UK: He won 10 games in 2018 with average quarterback play.
Then he came back 3 years later, scrapping his safe, run the ball, play defense philosophy for a more 21st century offense with a new coordinator and a transfer portal quarterback — and won 10 again.
Heading into the most anticipated UK football season ever, he’ll start anew again with offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Rich Scangarello. Not so much new, really (the verbiage may be somewhat different; the system the same), but a new coach running the show.
Liam Coen, who had great success as a first-year OC/QBs coach, moved back to the NFL with the Rams. Scangarello arrives from the NFL’s 49ers, where he has coached under one of the brightest offensive minds in the NFL in 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan.
The Shanahan offense relies on a powerful run game with zone blocking (hello, Chris Rodriguez), and an effective downfield passing game. While the 49ers didn’t exactly look like an efficient pass machine the past 2 seasons, look at the 2019 team when QB Jimmy Garoppolo was healthy (and the team was a handful of plays from winning the Super Bowl).
When Stoops lost Coen, he asked Levis to be part of the interview process for the new OC. Stoops wanted Levis’ input because he’s the quarterback, and because he’s the one known quantity in the passing game (UK will rely on transfer portal WRs Javon Baker and Tayvion Robinson).
There will be a transition with Scangarello, but nothing that can’t be overcome. Zach Yenser, who worked with Scngarello on the 49ers’ staff, is UK’s new offensive line coach – after Eric Wolford left for the same job at Alabama.
3. The job within the job
Last December, as the final letters of intent were streaming into the UK football offices, there was one key omission.
A 6-8, 350-pound omission.
A day later, Kentucky got the signed letter of intent from 5-star OT Kiyaunta Goodwin, the No. 13 player in the nation according to the 247Sports composite, to complete its record-setting recruiting class.
Goodwin could’ve played for any school in the SEC and had offers from every major program in college football. He chose Kentucky – and that, as much as anything, shows the strides Stoops has made in Lexington.
It’s more than the big salary or the constant upgrades in facilities that underscore the commitment to football and make the program attractive to recruits. It’s the development of players and winning – and the potential for more.
Stoops has had top-20 classes at Kentucky. He has produced first-round picks and the individual elite of college football on both sides of the ball. But those, for the most part, were pockets of success surrounded by tough, smartly developed, overachieving players.
The obvious question: Just how good can Kentucky be when it begins to recruit consistent top 10-15 classes and lands a handful of impact transfers from the portal on a regular basis.
“This program can be as good as we want it to be,” Levis says.
Maybe even better than 10 wins.
4. Just like before
The impact of Jameson Williams at Alabama in 2021 was so significant, the loss of Williams was the only way to truly explain it.
When Williams was lost with a knee injury early in the Playoff national championship game, so was Alabama’s season.
Spring practice begins Friday, and the first step to replacing Williams with another mega transfer begins. Former Georgia WR Jermaine Burton, an elite recruit who never really fit with the Bulldogs’ offense, will more than likely slide into WR1 with the Tide.
Burton has the deep speed and dynamic ability Alabama lacked in the Playoff when John Metchie III was injured in the win over Cincinnati, and Williams was lost against Georgia.
“I’ve always thought (Burton) was way underutilized at Georgia,” an NFL scout told me. “He’s one of those fluid, smooth guys that makes it look easy. He’s got that burst out of breaks like Williams. Make no mistake, he doesn’t have Williams’ speed – not many do – but he’s more than top-line fast and he will be in a completely different offense.”
When I asked how different, the NFL scout said, “You can see it. You’re going from riding as a passenger in late model Ford, to riding up front in Porsche with the best player in the game driving the car. Yeah, I expect Burton to have a big season.”
5. The Weekly Five
The top 5 freshmen from Texas A&M’s record-setting recruiting class with the best chance to start in 2022 (ranked by likelihood of starting):
1. CB Denver Harris: After Antonio Johnson, it’s wide open at the position.
2. DT Gabriel Brownlow-Dindy: Enrolling early will give him an edge on DT Walter Nolen, who will also play extensively.
3. WR Evan Stewart: Aggies need speed on the outside to stress defenses, and help QBs Haynes King and Max Johnson.
4. DE Shemar Stewart: Freakish length and strength, he’ll be a force off the edge.
5. TE Jake Johnson: A significant question on offense, and the player who has drawn comparisons to Georgia star Brock Bowers.
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Georgia WR George Pickens.
“The numbers are there. He’s big and strong, and he ran a 4.4 (40) at the Combine. That alone should all but eliminate concerns of the rehab for the knee (injury). He looked smooth, too. He was moving. He has a good catch radius, and he’s a physical guy in the route. Would love to have seen one more year with him in an offense that threw it well intermediate. Saw that with him in one game, really, in the bowl game during the (2020) season. He doesn’t have that explosion out of routes after the catch like the elite ones, but he’s going to play a while in this league if he can stay healthy. Someone might take a shot in the late 1st, but he’s more of an early second-day pick.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: An NFL scout reveals the best 2023 NFL Draft prospect.
1. Alabama: DE/OLB Will Anderson
2. Georgia: DT Jalen Carter
3. Texas A&M: CB Antonio Johnson
4. Arkansas: S Jalen Catalon
5. Kentucky: QB Will Levis
6. LSU: WR Kayshon Boutte
7. Florida: S Rashad Torrence
8. Tennessee: WR Cedric Tillman
9. Mississippi State: DE Jordan Davis
10. Ole Miss: T/G Nick Broeker
11. South Carolina: QB Spencer Rattler
12. Auburn: RB Tank Bigsby
13. Missouri: DE Trajan Jeffcoat
14. Vanderbilt: WR Amir Abdur-Rahman
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: Why did we hear about Matt Corral being a top-5 pick in the NFL Draft before the season, now he may not even be a first-round pick? How did he fall that fast with a great season? — Fred Simpson, Birmingham.
Fred: For every positive with Corral, there seems to be a negative tagging along. He improved this season on processing defenses and making quicker, smarter decisions. But some scouts say he benefited from a run-heavy, play-action RPO system.
His confidence is a 10, and he competes as hard as any position player on the field. But he also fails to leave the pocket when he should to extend plays or avoid sacks.
He has a quick release and is accurate on intermediate and deep throws, but his ball placement and accuracy are affected if he’s not framed and squared to throw.
Frankly, much of the criticism is similar to most quarterbacks in every NFL Draft. Those who check all the boxes are those who are picked No. 1 overall or within the first 5-10 selections. In other words, it’s not necessarily a deal-breaker for his NFL future.
But Corral clearly must get thicker (not stronger, thicker; big difference) to withstand the pounding he’ll receive in the NFL as opposed to college football. He can’t take on linebackers and safeties in the NFL and stay healthy. Period.
“I once saw him try and run over a D-lineman,” an NFL scout told me. “He’s a tough sonofagun, but that s— will get you out of this league quickly.”
I still expect him to be selected in the back end of the first round, because some team will fall in love with the intangibles that have made him a winner and a quarterback who makes plays – despite his deficiencies.
7. Much of the talk this offseason at Arkansas is the further development of QB KJ Jefferson.
Jefferson said he wants to lose weight and play at a more manageable 230-pounds, and the staff wants to expand his growth in the passing game.
Job No.1: 3rd-down throws. Jefferson’s completion percentage dipped into the 50s on 3rd down and 7-plus last year, and he completed just 7 passes for first downs on those throws. One important factor to build on: Jefferson didn’t throw an interception in 86 total 3rd-down throws.
10. Quote to note
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops on Scangarello: “It’s pretty remarkable that we were able to attract a coordinator of his caliber.”