Will Levis understands the concern.
No Kentucky quarterback has entered a season with more hype since Tim Couch. His most experienced backup transferred just before the start of preseason practice. The gap between a projected first-round NFL draft pick and any of UK’s backup quarterbacks looks so large that a significant injury to Levis might end hopes of Kentucky contending in the SEC East on its own.
It does not take long when watching the highlight reel of Levis’s first season at Kentucky to wonder if that concern becomes more pressing the first time the Wildcats’ star quarterback tries to hurdle a defender or pound through a tackle for an extra yard.
“He has approached this summer — he did it in the spring as well — to understand the importance of the value of you to the community of Lexington, this university and your teammates versus the 8 yards you think you can make,” offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello said.
No shortage of coaches, fans and advisors have suggested Levis take fewer risks in order to protect his health this season. The Connecticut native appears to have taken those directions to heart, but a conversation with former Florida star Tim Tebow at SEC Media Days might illustrate how difficult achieving that goal might actually be.
“He kind of took the opposite approach,” Levis said. “. . . He said his favorite feeling in his career always was getting picked up by his offensive linemen. It’s the dudes you try to earn their respect by how you treat them and how you operate as a unit. You know that they’ve got love in their hearts for you when they’re willing to chase down, get everyone away from you and pick you up every time.”
No matter how hard Levis tries to be more cognizant of the risk his physical style of play may cause, his natural instincts will not be easy to overrule.
So, the battle to see who serves as Levis’s primary backup might be one of the most important storylines to watch this month.
Following the transfer of former Lexington Catholic star Beau Allen to FCS Tarleton State, former Somerset star Kaiya Sheron and Iowa transfer Deuce Hogan are the two candidates for the job. Freshman Destin Wade, rated as a four-star recruit as an athlete, should add additional depth but is headed for a redshirt season, according to Scangarello.
Hogan, a sophomore, and Sheron, a redshirt freshman, have combined for one career appearance.
“Each day you could point to a guy who’s probably outplayed the other,” Scangarello said. “I think that they’ve done a nice job, they’ve gotten a lot of opportunity. There’s been a lot of reps the way we’ve done things, and it provides them (the chance) to show they can play.
“I think they’ve done that. But, there’s a long way to go and until you take that red jersey off and play for real, you really never know. But I like where they’re both at and if we had to play them, I’d feel comfortable with both of them.”
Scangarello does not anticipate an end to the backup competition by the opener.
One of the quarterbacks will know he is the designated replacement if Levis is forced to the sideline during a game, but if Levis suffered a significant injury that forced him to miss an extended period, Kentucky coaches would probably open the starting job for competition again in practice.
A former four-star recruit out of Grapevine Faith Christian High School in Texas, Hogan actually arrived at UK as a walk-on transfer in January. He appeared in one game at Iowa last season without attempting a pass but elected to enter the transfer portal after Hawkeyes Coach Kirk Ferentz made a joke at his expense in an interview in November.
“When I entered the portal, I had a lot of schools hitting me up, Twitter DMs and Instagram, stuff like that,” Hogan said. “Kentucky, I just felt love. I felt very desired here and felt like I had a cool opportunity.”
The two-time Class 2A Player of the Year at Somerset, Sheron graduated high school a semester early to enroll at UK in January 2020. He did not play in a game while redshirting last season but has reportedly made a jump this summer after completing his second spring practice with the team.
Hogan has the stronger arm of the two quarterbacks, but Sheron is more mobile. Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops praised Sheron for his ability to extend plays in Saturday’s first scrimmage of preseason camp, allowing him to complete several passes even after protection on a makeshift offensive line had broken down.
“I’ve had some good coaches,” Sheron said. “Coach (Liam) Coen from the NFL, Coach (Scangarello) from the NFL. I’m learning a lot from them, and then when the guys come in gives me motivation.
“Iron sharpens iron, so I’m just competing against Deuce and competing against Will personally. Just having fun with it.”
Hogan and Sheron received an extended look during Saturday’s scrimmage when coaches elected to limit Levis’s workload. Both quarterbacks realize that Levis, projected in several mock drafts as a possible top-10 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, is the locked-in starter for Kentucky.
Being able to learn from Levis’s example has proven valuable as they compete to be the insurance policy in case Levis is injured, but it could also pay dividends in the future after Levis makes the jump to the NFL. Kentucky coaches are expected to pursue another quarterback in the transfer portal next offseason to join the competition to replace Levis, but the winner of the backup competition this year could have an early edge in the battle to start next season.
Whether either quarterback is ready to perform at the level needed to match Kentucky’s lofty preseason expectations in the event Levis is injured remains a significant question. It is too early to count either quarterback out for the future though.
“It’s been close,” Scangarello said. “They’ve both done great things, they’ve both done good things, they’ve both done things they need to improve. It’s been pretty even. I have liked what I’ve seen out of them, and I do see futures for both those guys here in this program as being really good quarterbacks.”