Why Kentucky's Mark Stoops isn't worried about how Will Levis will deal with preseason hype
ATLANTA — Mark Stoops may usually be reluctant to contribute to the preseason hype machine for his Kentucky football players, but even he cannot help but brag on quarterback Will Levis this summer.
“We have to have some play-makers step up at the wide receiver position because we have a beast of a quarterback,” Stoops said during his appearance at SEC Media Days Wednesday.
Since being burned by prematurely hyping a group of young defensive backs early in his Kentucky tenure, Stoops has generally declined to bite on reporters’ questions about offseason standouts and breakout candidates. He has made an exception to that rule for players like Levis who have earned their reputation on the field, but with Levis’s spot in the pecking order of SEC quarterbacks a popular debate topic leading up to Kentucky’s SEC Media Days appearance, it would have been little surprise to see Stoops avoid any perception of increasing the pressure on his quarterback.
Instead, Stoops made it clear where he stands on the topic of whether Levis can earn a spot in the first round of the 2023 NFL draft.
“I'm not going to lie, when I watch him at times, I mean, it does kind of blow you away,” Stoops said. “You just watch him maybe on a windy day, there's gusts coming at you, and the way he rips the football, the way he throws it, the way he works, he's exceptional.
“I don't worry about him, talking about him like that, because he's very self-driven. He's worried about getting better. He works his tail off every day.”
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A year ago, Levis had not even been named Kentucky’s starting quarterback yet. He had been pigeon-holed as a change-of-pace, run-first backup at Penn State. While he was viewed as the favorite to win Kentucky’s starting job after being recruited out of the transfer portal by offensive coordinator Liam Coen, he faced significant competition from multiple quarterbacks who enjoyed the head start of a full spring practice to learn Coen’s system.
Levis wasted little time winning the respect of his teammates and establishing himself as the obvious choice to start for Kentucky after arriving on campus.
There were moments of inconsistency during his first season as a Wildcat, but he led Kentucky to its second 10-win season since 1977 while totaling more than 3,000 yards of offense.
Since Kentucky’s Citrus Bowl win over Iowa, Levis’s stock has soared to the point there is now pushback from pundits who say he has yet to prove worthy of the consensus first-round draft projection now tagged to his name.
“It’s impossible for me not to see it,” Levis said. “It’s cool. I acknowledge it. … But don’t really worry about it and focus on the task at hand. Just getting the team ready and working toward our goals.”
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While a panel of USA TODAY Network SEC beat reporters recently ranked Levis third among SEC quarterbacks, at least one mock draft has placed him in contention for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NFL draft.
Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, has near-unanimous support as the first-team quarterback on preseason All-SEC teams, but Levis joins a group that also includes Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker, Georgia’s Stetson Bennett and South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler in contention for status as Young’s biggest challenger for postseason honors. For Levis to separate from that pack, Kentucky will likely need to establish itself as a legitimate challenger to Georgia in the SEC East.
Focusing on team goals — with the understanding that team success makes it easier to earn individual recognition — is helping Levis drown out the noise this summer.
It is that mindset that makes it easy for Stoops to not worry about preseason hype affecting his quarterback’s play.
“He is really focused on getting better,” Stoops said. “He continues to lead. He’s a great leader, great teammate, but he’s really working hard on himself to be a better football player. That’s what you love about him, and that’s contagious.”
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