In the giddy moments following Kentucky’s 45-10 win over Louisiana-Monroe on the first Saturday in September, the Big Blue Nation – heck, the ENTIRE football-loving nation – was chattering about the Wildcats’ new offense, triggered by their new, strong-armed quarterback.
Will Levis had materialized in the transfer portal, snatched up the starting QB job and captured the hearts of Wildcat fans everywhere by hitting on 18 of 26 passes for 367 yards and four touchdowns.
And they weren’t just the catch ‘n run variety, my friends. They were the kind of long bombs that sail through the air so long, fans have ample time to sweep their eyes down the field and see a blue jersey, streaking toward the end zone, their screams of delight carrying the receiver to paydirt.
But since then, there has been a dearth of thrills delivered by airmail. Sure, Kentucky has won four more and sits atop a sparkling throne of 5-0, one of only three teams in the Southeastern Conference still unblemished. But it’s a Top 20 entrant thanks in large part to a defense playing what’s probably its best brand of football since Mark Stoops arrived 10 years ago.
So let’s talk about Levis.
“I was one of the few who didn’t go overboard after the ULM game.” That’s not me. That was Freddie Maggard, the ex-UK quarterback turned commentator who joined us on a recent episode of the Big Blue Insider radio show. And mind you, Freddie’s comments weren’t prompted by despair. He’s coming from the vantage point of a guy who has thousands of QB drill reps and miles of film study in his rear-view. Even today, he watches current UK games repeatedly, searching for clues.
Levis, he said, will have to have the best game of his career if Kentucky is to beat LSU which, even minus All-American corner Derek Stingley, Jr., features one of the most talented defensive secondaries in the country.
“He’ll have to have a tremendous step-up in production and efficiency and do a little bit better with his eyes and in the pocket,” he said. “That pocket is an umbrella. You don’t run to the rush, you step up into the pocket, keep your eyes on your progressions and make the throws. There are some things to clean up there.”
Agree? Disagree? Levis, for one, chooses the former. On the field, as he celebrated with thousands of fans, Levis told a man with a microphone that he realized the offense could have been better against the Gators.
“Obviously, some stagnant drives on offense that we can definitely get fixed and get better at,” he said.
That stagnation wasn’t all his fault. A fourth-down call for Chris Rodriguez in the Wildcat formation, with no man in motion and everyone in the western hemisphere knowing what he was going to do with the ball cut short one of those drives.
And on an ensuing third-down call, late in the game when Kentucky needed to move the chains to avoid giving Florida one last shot at the end zone, offensive coordinator Liam Coen called for a naked bootleg pass play that had Levis rolling to his left, making it all but impossible to throw the ball away if need be. To the Gators’ credit, they sniffed it out and blew it up.
But earlier in the game, Levis had thrown yet another interception, firing a pass way over the head of an intended receiver and into the hands of a Florida DB. It was his eighth of the season.
Levis ranks a respectable sixth in the SEC when it comes to QB rating, although he’s considerably behind fifth-place Matt Corral of Ole Miss. But as a team, even including the gaudy stats from the ULM game, the Wildcats rank 11th of 14 in passing yards per contest.
In three conference games, Levis is 32 of 57 for just 382 yards, with three picks and two TDs.
But numbers don’t tell the entire story. Levis is also the same guy who on more than one occasion has given up his body to move the chains, dashing through broken coverage, eschewing a safety slide when the only way to get the needed yardage was by diving.
And he won’t hesitate to put his shoulder into an opposing linebacker; that’s when it helps to have a QB who goes 6-foot-3, 232 lbs. and isn’t shy about contact. Fans love him for it. So do his teammates.
But the best thing he has going for him is the faith of his head coach, who was forced at the end of last season to fire a close friend and hand the offense to a new coordinator still feeling his way through the rugged SEC. So is his quarterback.
“I know he’ll put it together, I really do,” Stoops said of Levis after the Florida win. “He cares too much. He’s very talented. We’re going to get better. I know at times Liam and Will and the offense get frustrated, but we’re going to get there. I’m very confident. They just got to stay the course and keep their head up and stay positive and keep that belief system high because we’re doing the right things.”
And those words are why Maggard, truly a fan but still a quarterback deep down, isn’t concerned. He’s spent the last decade watching the Stoops “brand” evolve at his alma mater.
“If anything in this 10-year experience teaches me,” Maggard said, “it’s trust Mark Stoops in what he says because he doesn’t lie about it and what he says normally comes true. So I trust him when he says the offense is going to be better Saturday.”
And if it is, the digits will say Kentucky is a perfect 6-0 as it reaches the halfway point of the season. And how about this for a number: They’re 60 minutes away from a showdown with the Georgia Bulldogs.