Sometimes coaches might want to downplay how good they think a team could be. Vince Marrow is not that way.
Instead, the Kentucky associate head coach/ recruiting coordinator is hyping the expectations for the 2021 Kentucky football team.
“We have been to five straight bowls and won the last three,” said Marrow. “We are at the point in the program now where it is time to go to Atlanta [to play in the SEC championship game]. We should now be able to get Georgia [to win the SEC Eastern Division]. In 2018 we were in position, but were not ready for that moment. The way our roster is now, we are ready for that moment. I really do believe Kentucky football is at the point where there ain’t no jokes anymore. The days of jokes about Kentucky football are over.”
Kentucky has a lot of key returning pieces this year:
— Running back Chris Rodriguez ran for a team-high 785 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. He scored on runs of 79 and 74 yards and ran for 480 yards and seven scores in UK’s last four games. No other SEC player with 50 or more rushing attempts averaged more than his 6.6 yards per attempts.
— Offensive tackle Darian Kinnard earned All- American honors last season and was graded as the nation’s best run-blocking tackle by Pro Football Focus. Luke Fortner also opted to take an extra year to give UK another stabilizing veteran.
— Safety Yusuf Corner had 74 tackles in 2019 and came back with 77 last season. He also picked off two passes and had 2.5 tackles for loss and should be one of the SEC’s better defensive backs and playmakers this season.
— Josh Paschal is the inspirational leader of the defense. He had 32 tackles in 11 games, including 6.5 tackles for loss, last year and had his first career interception that he returned 76 yards. The defensive lineman missed most of the 2018 season due to skin cancer but is the player others follow because of his courage and tenacity.
The biggest “if” is at quarterback, where new offensive coordinator Liam Coen has three options: former Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood, redshirt freshman Beau Allen or recent Penn State transfer Will Levis. Gatewood and Allen both went through spring practice with Coen while Levis arrived on campus in June.
Kentucky had the SEC’s least-efficient passing game last season. UK has not averaged seven yards per pass the last two seasons, and Coen knows that must improve. Levis threw for 644 yards and three touchdowns last season and ran for 473 yards and six scores. He has more playing experience than Allen or Gatewood but less time in the offense.
Coen’s offense will be more a pro-style attack, and the quarterback will have two proven targets in Josh Ali — 54 catches for 473 yards and one score last year at UK — and transfer Wan’Dale Robinson — 91 catches for 914 yards and three scores and 134 rushes for 580 yards and four touchdowns in 18 games at Nebraska.
“We’ve got some big losses to the draft on both sides of the ball,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “But we have a lot of players that have just been waiting for a chance to show what they can do and a lot of players who have already proven what they can do.”
The one game that might define UK’s season could be the SEC opener on September 11th against visiting Missouri. Kentucky’s five-game win streak against the Tigers snapped in a 20-10 loss last season. To contend for the SEC East as Marrow believes UK will, this is a must-win.