We might be experiencing one of those rare summer occurrences in the Bluegrass, one in which there is more anticipation for the upcoming University of Kentucky football season than the UK basketball season.
A little of that might have to do with the Cats’ last two hoops campaigns, the 9-16 COVID-19 disaster that was 2020-21 and the first-round NCAA knockout by Saint Peter’s that brought the 2021-22 season to an abrupt and shocking end.
To be sure, Big Blue Nation is curious to see how John Calipari and Company rebound. There are worse ways to start a season than having Oscar “National Player of the Year” Tshiebwe, Sahvir Wheeler and Jacob Toppin as returnees on your roster. Given the results of the last two seasons, however, there seems an uncertainty about UK basketball.
Anecdotally at least, I field more questions and hear more offseason chatter about what Mark Stoops and the UK football team are capable of doing this fall than what will happen with Cal’s Cats.
Maybe that’s because we’re less than two months from the start of falling football practice. Or maybe it’s a testament to what Stoops has accomplished heading into his 10th year at the helm, especially when he’s coming off his second 10-win season in the past four seasons.
To be sure, there is some bubbling uncertainty that clouds the Cats’ picture. What exactly is the status of star running back Chris Rodriguez, a 1,300-yard rusher a season ago? How will the offensive line replace three key pieces? Is a highly touted but young defensive line ready to step up? Is there anyone on the roster that can duplicate the impact Wan’Dale Robinson provided in 2021?
Overall, however, the vibe is positive, starting with the face of the franchise, quarterback Will Levis. You can find the rising senior in the first-round mocks of the 2023 NFL Draft and at the forefront of NIL efforts. Levis is a player with all the traits — including leadership — pro scouts covet. He appears poised to take a major step forward in 2022. Not a bad place to start.
There’s the anticipation of what new offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello can do with the pro-style foundation departed OC Liam Coen built a season ago. There’s the enthusiasm of new offensive line coach Zach Yenser, who tutored under John Schlarman and coached alongside Scangarello last season with the San Francisco 49ers.
Defensively, there’s the enthusiasm and continuity generated by the return of defensive coordinator Brad White, who turned down overtures from new LSU coach Brian Kelly to remain in Lexington. White has significant holes to fill. He also has returnees De’Andre Square, Jacquez Jones, JJ Weaver, Carrington Valentine and Jordan Wright, among others, as foundational pieces.
Having eight games on the home schedule doesn’t hurt, either. Nor does the fact that outside of defending national champion Georgia, the SEC East remain chock full of question marks. Can Josh Heupel build on his early momentum at Tennessee? Same for Shane Beamer at South Carolina? How long will it take Billy Napier to turn Florida around? What should we make of Eli Drinkwitz’s first two years at Missouri?
Even during the leanest of Kentucky football’s stretches — there have been more than few of those — there has been a loyal and underrated following that is being rewarded now but is also anxious to see if the Cats can take that proverbial next step, ie earn a berth in the SEC title game, one that until recently seemed like little more than a pipe dream.
Stoops has changed that. With 59 victories, he needs just one more win to place his name alongside a fellow named Bear Bryant as UK’s all-time winningest coach. Stoops turns 55 next month. He has choppy waters to navigate, from NIL to the transfer portal to the pending SEC arrival of Oklahoma and Texas to a possible addition of a ninth game on the conference schedule.
And yet, around me at least, in a basketball state, I hear more and more summer talk of Kentucky football from UK fans, anxious to see what happens next.