Kentucky football position breakdown: What can we expect from the new-look offense?

Brett Dawson
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON — Rich Scangarello’s career has taken him from college football to the NFL and back again. 

He’s been to an NFC Championship Game. He's coached Jimmy Garappolo.

And he maybe hasn’t enjoyed any of it as much as his so-far brief time as Kentucky football’s offensive coordinator. 

“I don’t know that I’ve had more fun coaching than I’ve had the last couple months, that I can remember, being here,” Scangarello said. “This environment, the players, the whole setup that coach (Mark Stoops) has created.”

This week it can start getting even more fun — or a whole lot less. 

Scangarello’s offense hasn’t taken the field yet for a game. That changes Saturday when the Wildcats host Miami (Ohio) at Kroger Field. And though the first-year offensive coordinator has no shortage of weapons at his disposal, he still has to make them click. 

Here’s a look at what he’s working with and how it all might fit together, with starters and backups based on UK's initial depth chart, released Monday. 

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Starter: Will Levis

Backups: Deuce Hogan, Kaiya Sheron

Outlook: As long as Levis stays upright, Kentucky is all set at the most important offensive position. The senior is coming off a strong season in which he threw for 2,826 yards, ran for 376 more and accounted for 33 total touchdowns. The expectation is that he’ll be even better this season, though he’ll need to master Scangarello’s offense the way he did former coordinator Liam Coen’s. And he’ll need help from some talented but inexperienced playmakers all over the field. 

The backup spot here is TBD after Lexington native Beau Allen entered the transfer portal a month ago, and the Wildcats have to hope it’s littered with DNPs. Barring blowouts, it’s a bad sign if UK has to turn to either Sheron or Hogan. Each showed some strengths in fall camp but neither figures to be ready to replace Levis for any extended period of time. The Cats probably will name a No. 2, but the backup plan likely will be situational. 

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Kentucky’s Kavosiey Smoke celebrates scoring a touchdown against Tennessee.
Nov. 6, 2012

Running backs

Starter: Kavosiey Smoke

Backups: Ramon Jefferson, Mike Drennen, JuTahn McClain, LaVell Wright, Chris Rodriguez

Outlook: Rodriguez is the best player here and the presumptive starter — whenever he’s back on the field. He'll miss at least the season opener after an offseason arrest for DUI, though UK has not termed it a suspension nor confirmed that the arrest is the reason he's unavailable. The Wildcats have weapons to use in his stead, but while there are intriguing pieces, it’ll be replacement by committee. Smoke is a burner; Jefferson burly and bouncy; McClain, Wright and Drennen all versatile potential big-play makers. But there’s no single player with Rodriguez’s power, explosiveness and experience. 

That could make a Week 2 game at Florida daunting, but in the long run, the reps Rodriguez’s understudies snag early could pay off late, with more players capable of contributing in big moments. 

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Wide receivers

Starters: Tayvion Robinson, Dane Key, Barion Brown

Backups: Chauncey Magwood, Chris Lewis, DeMarcus Harris

Outlook: Entering his 10th season at UK, Stoops has more than once said this is his best-ever group of wide receivers, but that’s based far more on potential than production. Two of the top three wideouts will be true freshmen in Key and Brown. The most experienced player in the bunch is Robinson, but he’s in his first season at Kentucky after transferring from Virginia Tech. 

Still, the Cats are loaded with size, speed and versatility at the position, giving Levis the chance to diversify a passing game that last season leaned so heavily on star Wan’Dale Robinson, now a rookie with the NFL’s New York Giants. 

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Tight ends

Sep 25, 2021; Columbia, South Carolina, USA; Kentucky Wildcats offensive tackle John Young (71) and tight end Brenden Bates (80) react after a successful field goal attempt by place kicker Matt Ruffolo (96) against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the second quarter at Williams-Brice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Starters: Brenden Bates or Keaton Upshaw, Jordan Dingle

Backups: Izayah Cummings, Josh Kattus

Outlook: See all those names? Scanagarello is a proponent of using the tight end in his passing attack, and UK has given him options. Bates probably is the best blocker, though Kattus — a product of the Cincinnati Moeller program that also produced Bates — has quickly earned a rep for his physicality. Upshaw and Cummings are the biggest threats as pass catchers. Dingle is among the players viewed as potential breakouts this season. 

But the appeal of UK’s room is that everybody is pretty good at everything. That might create some playing-time challenges, but it’s a good problem to have. No position on the offense is better equipped to sustain an injury — or to get weird with its full complement of players. The Cats should use two tight ends regularly, but there have been hints at formations with three or even four. 

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Offensive line

Starters: LT David Wohlabaugh, LG Jager Burton, C Eli Cox, RG Tashawn Manning, RT Jeremy Flax

Backups: LT Kiyaunta Goodwin, LG Kenneth Horsey, C Quintin Wilson, RG John Young, RT Deondre Buford

Outlook: Despite the inexperience at running back and wide receiver, this might be where Kentucky’s biggest question lies. There’s experience on the offensive front from Cox, Horsey and Manning, who started in 14 of the 30 games he played at Auburn before transferring. 

But Flax has never started a game. Neither has Wohlabaugh, a redshirt freshman who played two games last season and now is expected to start at left tackle, where he’ll be charged with guarding Levis’s blindside. 

At some point, that position could go to massive five-star freshman Goodwin, but it won't be at the start of the season. His growth there — and Wohlabaugh’s — could go a long way in determining just how good Levis and his playmakers can be.

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