Who replaces Wan'Dale Robinson? Five storylines to watch at Kentucky football fall camp
In Kentucky football history, this qualifies as a golden era.
The Wildcats are coming off a 10-win season — their second in four years after a 40-year drought — and have won 62% of their games over the past half-dozen seasons. They’ve been to six straight bowls (the longest streak in school history) and have won four of them in a row (ditto).
And with dynamic quarterback Will Levis among 13 returning starters — five on offense, six on defense and two specialists — there’s reason for optimism entering a fall camp that opens this week.
Media covering the Southeastern Conference picked UK to finish second in the SEC East. It's a distant second, behind defending national champion Georgia, but a vote of confidence nonetheless for a program that has never won the East and last season finished second for the first time since the league went to divisions in 1992.
Nitpick if you want — the Wildats have two winning seasons in SEC play since coach Mark Stoops took over in 2013, and they beat one FBS team last season that finished with a winning record — but Kentucky has made major strides.
If the Wildcats want to maintain the momentum, there are some uncertainties to solve. UK will start looking for answers to these and other key questions when practice opens this week.
What’s the deal with Chris Rodriguez?
The biggest question facing Stoops’ program is the status of running back Chris Rodriguez, a preseason first-team All-SEC selection whose playing availability is uncertain after a May arrest on DUI charges.
At SEC Media Days last month, Stoops said Rodriguez had been “working hard with the team, training, getting ready” but declined to comment further. Rodriguez pled guilty to operating a motor vehicle under the influence.
If Rodriguez is to miss time during the season, Kentucky has a major hole to fill. He ran for 1,378 yards and 10 touchdowns on 225 carries last season and caught 13 passes for 61 yards and three scores.
There’s no single back ready to replace Rodriguez, but Kentucky will have options, including senior Kavosiey Smoke, juniors JuTahn McClain and Mike Drennen and redshirt freshman LaVell Wright, plus a pair of transfers Ramon Jefferson from Sam Houston State and Dee Beckwith from Tennessee.
Jefferson is taking a step up in competition, but he was a proven producer at the FCS level, carrying 173 times last season for 1,155 yards and 13 touchdowns. His adjustment to power-conference football figures to be a key for however long Rodriguez is absent.
Who’s the backup quarterback?
It’s a relative rarity for Kentucky to enter a season without a QB question at the top of the depth chart, but Levis is the key cog in the offense after throwing for 2,826 yards and 24 touchdowns and rushing for 376 yards and nine more scores last season.
But backup Beau Allen’s decision last week to transfer complicates an already cloudy picture behind Levis.
By default, QB2 might go to Deuce Hogan, who transferred from Iowa as a walk-on after appearing in one game last season for the Hawkeyes. A three-star prospect in the high school class of 2020 out of Faith Christian in Grapevine, Texas, he completed the only pass he threw at Iowa, a 2-yard completion in a blowout win against Maryland.
Hogan’s strongest competition for backup snaps figures to be redshirt freshman Kaiya Sheron, a former three-star prospect from Somerset High School.
Who replaces Wan’Dale Robinson?
Barring injury, Levis figures to get the vast majority of the quarterback snaps. There’s far more mystery about who he’ll target with throws.
The easy answer here is that no single receiver can fill in for Wan’Dale Robinson, the former Nebraska transfer who last season racked up single-season school records in receptions (104) and receiving yards (1,334) before leaving for the NFL Draft.
Robinson is among the most talented receivers ever to play at Kentucky, and there’s not a talent like him on the roster.
But the Cats have high hopes for a number of wideouts, including a trio of newcomers: Virginia Tech transfer Tayvion Robinson and true freshmen Dane Key and Barion Brown.
Robinson caught 44 passes for 559 yards and five touchdowns for the Hokies last season. Key, the son of former Wildcat defensive end Donté Key, a product of Frederick Douglass in Lexington, was a four-star prospect in the 247Sports Composite rankings last season and the top-ranked recruit in Kentucky.
Brown, also a four-star prospect, was 247Sports' No. 16 receiver nationally in the high school class of 2022. The Nashville product has “all the tools,” Stoops said at SEC Media Days.
UK also needs progression from returning receivers, including juniors Izayah Cummings and DeMarcus Harris.
“We feel as a group we're probably as talented as we have been in a long time,” Stoops said. “There's definitely some youth there that we've got a lot of work to do.”
Who’s going to play in the secondary?
Kentucky returns a pair of starters to its defensive backfield in cornerback Carrington Valentine and safety Tyrell Ajian. But the Cats lost a pair of starters, and Vito Tisdale — a nickelback who spent time in spring practice at corner — will miss the season with a knee injury suffered in the spring.
Ole Miss transfer Keidron Smith is a key figure, a likely starter at corner. But UK needs fall camp growth from small-school transfers Zion Childress (Texas State) and Jordan Robinson (Livingstone College) as well as returning corner Andru Phillips, coming off a solid spring.
Can Kiyaunta Goodwin shore up the offensive line?
The Cats lost both starting tackles, Darian Kinnard and Dare Rosenthal, from an offensive line that’s been a mostly reliable foundation in recent years.
Among the candidates to replace one of them is true freshman Kiyaunta Goodwin, a four-star prospect out of Charlestown (Indiana) High School who’s originally from Louisville.
Goodwin, who committed to Kentucky then reconsidered before ultimately signing with the Wildcats, is one of the gems of UK’s freshman class. He enrolled for the spring semester and though Stoops said he “needs a lot of reps,” he added the 6-foot-8, 351-pounder is “extremely talented.”
Senior guard Kenneth Horsey can play tackle, but the Cats’ preference likely is for the emergence of two starters among Goodwin, redshirt freshman David Wohlabaugh, sophomore Deondre Buford and junior Jeremy Flax.
But all eyes figure to be on Goodwin, who should be a legitimate contender to land a starting spot.
“Head spinning a little bit with some of the protections and stuff like that, but we expect that being a young guy,” offensive line coach Zach Yenser said of Goodwin in the spring. “I’ll tell you what: When he knows what he’s doing — and right about 95% of the time right now — when he knows what he’s doing he’s very, very talented.”