Former Penn State transfer Valentino gives Gators scouting report on former teammate, Wildcats QB Levis

Graham Hall
Special to The Sun
Florida defensive lineman Antonio Valentino (55) runs on the field before the game against Alabama at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Florida redshirt senior defensive lineman Antonio Valentino, who transferred to the program from Penn State prior to the 2021 season, got his first taste of SEC football at the conclusion of the 2018 season. 

That game? The 2019 Citrus Bowl at Camping World Stadium in Orlando. The opponent? The Kentucky Wildcats, who would come away with the narrow 27-24 victory over Valentino’s Nittany Lions. 

In spite of the outcome, Valentino doesn’t harbor ill feelings toward that game — as the Gators prepare to battle the Wildcats on the road, his journey to this moment is on his mind.

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"I was hoping somebody would bring this up, that was my first college start ever. Yeah, that was my first college start. It's kind of weird how things end, if you kind of think about it,” Valentino said. “Short story, I have an uncle that lives in Orlando, and one time I was driving to his house and I drove past the Citrus Bowl Stadium, which is where we played them, and I just texted my Mom, I was like 'It was kind of crazy how my first start is in the state of Florida, and now my last year playing college ball is down here as well.’” 

In that contest, Wildcats running back Benny Snell Jr. rushed for 144 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries against Valentino and his Nittany Lions teammates. Snell, who, like Valentino, hails from Columbus, Ohio, is now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the Kentucky Wildcats’ ground game hasn’t lost its momentum. 

Kentucky running back Chris Rodriguez, Jr. enters the game ranked No. 1 in the SEC in rushing yards with 520. UF's backfield collective is ranked No. 1 in rushing yards in the conference through four games.

Valentino hasn’t forgotten what the Wildcats did on the ground that day almost three years ago, and he’s expecting to see Kentucky once again consistently run the football when he takes the field Saturday night in Lexington.

“I think they have an identity that they would like to stick to because when we played them they had Benny Snell running the ball. And obviously, if you watched the game, they ran all over us, unfortunately. That’s an NFL running back and an SEC offensive line, not to throw shade on the Big Ten or anything. They were the better team that day and they earned it,” Valentino said. “So I think that, although they have different coordinators, I think they still have an identity they stick to, (which is) running the ball. Obviously, they are very good at it.”

Though Valentino is far more familiar with the Wildcats’ quarterback, Will Levis, than he is the current Kentucky backfield. 

Levis spent three seasons at Penn State with Valentino before both players opted to transfer to the SEC for the 2021 campaign, meaning Valentino’s seen more of Levis in practice than he has of his current Florida teammates. 

He knows the 6-foot-3 Levis, who has passed for 902 yards and seven touchdowns so far this season, albeit with five interceptions, is capable of successfully running Kentucky’s offensive system under coordinator Liam Cohen, especially if the Wildcats can establish the run early against UF’s defensive front. 

“I know a lot about how he plays ball just from, obviously, being his teammate and going against him every day in practice. I’ve seen him play in games,” Valentino said of Levis. “Play-action and all of that really only works if you can establish the run. So, obviously, first with football, playing defensive line is stop the run. You’ve got to earn the right to rush the passer on first down. So, we’ve just got to be in our gaps, do our job, play sound defense and make our plays when they come to us, and I think we’ll be fine.”

Valentino knows far more about Levis’ attributes on the field than he does about the quarterback’s off-the-field behavior, so when the now-viral video of Levis eating an overripe banana with the peel on, he was just as taken aback as anyone who has seen the video. 

Although Valentino does admit he already had a hunch Levis was a bit of a “freak.”

“All right, so look, I never saw that (video). So, like, I knew Levis was a freak for real because, one winter, we lifted together. Like, he was my lift partner, but, like, I didn’t know he was eating bananas like that,” Valentino said. “When I seen it on Twitter, I was like, ‘Bro, what are you doing man?’”

These discussions are just a reprieve from business, however.

As he prepares to once again sack the quarterback he faced for three years in practice, Valentino isn’t discussing banana peels or prior losses to Kentucky with his defensive teammates. 

He’s warning them of what type of weapon the Wildcats have on offense. 

“I told the D-Line in meetings today, just a little bit about what I know about him, and my biggest thing was Will’s mentality. He’s not very easily shaken. He’s very strong-willed, very strong in his mind. He’s very physical as a quarterback. If he’s running the ball — at least from what I remember — he’s running the ball, and if he has a choice of going around you or going through you, he’s going to try to go through you,” Valentino said. “He’s very good with his legs. Anybody’s who’s been watching SEC football clearly sees that he can air it out when he needs to. I think he’s playing in an offense that he’s very comfortable in, and he has the tools around him to really show what he can do, and that’s really what I was just telling the guys today in meetings.”