Regardless of bowl opt-out decision, Will Levis’ Kentucky football legacy looks safe

On Sunday, Kentucky football will learn what bowl game it will play in. Whether star quarterback Will Levis will participate in the game should be revealed before then.

“I’m going to talk to (Mark) Stoops on Monday,” Levis said after Kentucky’s Governor’s Cup win over Louisville on Saturday when asked about a timeline for his bowl decision. “Then probably my family, too. I don’t have a timeline. Probably within a week, I’d say. I don’t really know.”

Kentucky has largely escaped the recent trend of players opting out of bowl games.

National defensive player of the year winner Josh Allen elected to play in the Citrus Bowl following the 2018 regular season despite being projected as a first-round draft pick. That decision did not hurt him as he was eventually picked seventh overall in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Linebacker Jamin Davis played in the Gator Bowl after the 2020 season, then was picked in the first round of the 2021 draft.

Last year, wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson and center Luke Fortner played in the Citrus Bowl despite being projected as day-two draft picks. Defensive end Josh Paschal, a second-round pick in the 2022 draft, did not play in the game due to an injury but remained with the team through the bowl.

Kentucky’s only bowl opt-out came in 2020 when cornerback Kelvin Joseph elected not to play in the Wildcats’ regular-season finale or bowl game. Joseph was picked in the second round of the 2021 draft.

Levis’ decision is not quite as simple as the previous Wildcats who chose to play in bowl games, though.

He has been routinely listed among the top three quarterbacks in the 2023 NFL Draft class throughout the season, even at times earning buzz as a possible candidate for the No. 1 pick. Levis’ on-field results have failed to match his draft hype, but injuries and struggles around him, primarily on the offensive line, have contributed to underwhelming statistics.

“Hard to put into words what he’s meant to us,” Stoops said of Levis after the Louisville win. “His toughness, leadership, battling through adversity. Coming here and having a great year and going through an offensive coordinator change and getting beat up and having a year where he wasn’t at 100%, he fought through it.

“He’s a true professional. He set the tone for us here. We absolutely love him, whether it’s his last game or plays one more. I think the world of him, and love what he’s done for us and don’t want anything but the best for him and his future.”

In two seasons as Kentucky football’s starting quarterback, Will Levis has compiled a 17-7 record.
In two seasons as Kentucky football’s starting quarterback, Will Levis has compiled a 17-7 record.

Since running backs Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey launched the bowl opt-out trend by declining to play in postseason games for LSU and Stanford, respectively, in 2016, there have been 21 quarterbacks drafted in the first round. Only two of those players opted out of games for their college teams. Two others missed their bowl games due to injury and one played for a team that did not qualify for a bowl.

While most of those quarterbacks were playing in the College Football Playoff or other New Year’s Six bowls, some did play in mid-tier bowl games.

Zach Wilson played in the Boca Raton Bowl for BYU in 2020. Jordan Love played in the Frisco Bowl for Utah State in 2019. Daniel Jones played in the Independence Bowl for Duke in 2018. Josh Allen played in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl for Wyoming and Lamar Jackson played in the TaxSlayer Bowl for Louisville in 2017. Mitch Trubisky played in the Sun Bowl for North Carolina in 2016.

One opt-out came from North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance after the NCAA moved the 2020 FCS season to the 2021 spring semester. Playing that schedule would have directly conflicted with his spring draft preparations.

Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett opted out of the Peach Bowl last year. He was then selected with the No. 20 pick in April.

While Pickett opted out of a bowl a year ago, Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral, who was generally ranked as one of the top quarterback prospects in the draft class, decided to play in the Sugar Bowl where he suffered an ankle injury that caused him to be sidelined for part of the pre-draft workout process. Corral slid to the third round of the 2022 draft, though reports suggested that had more to do with off-field concerns than his injury.

Levis already has had his senior season affected by injuries.

Playing behind a rebuilt offensive line, the Wildcats’ quarterback has been sacked 36 times in 11 games. He suffered turf toe in the October loss at Ole Miss and missed the following game against South Carolina. Even after returning to the field, the injury severely limited Levis’ mobility.

He also dislocated the middle finger on his non-throwing hand at Ole Miss and injured his non-throwing shoulder against Mississippi State.

“He’s 10 out of 10 in toughness,” offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello said. “I don’t think people realize how injured he was this year. He played for five or six weeks where literally he would sprint out in practice and fall down. Like, his toe would give out on him. Bad habits can come from that with not transitioning your weight and your shoulder.

“… The last two weeks he’s felt probably the best he’s felt in a while. I thought he played better, he threw it better and was more confident because of it. But I love him. He’s got the mind, he’s got the toughness, he’s got the arm talent. People are going to judge some of his games. I hope they fully understand what he’s been dealing with. When they do and you look beyond that, I think they’re going to realize he’s going to be one of the better ones in the league.”

Portions of the Kentucky fan base would undoubtedly judge Levis harshly if he opts out of the bowl game, but others have already echoed Stoops in voicing support for Levis regardless of the decision.

Levis’ Kentucky legacy appears secure.

In his first season as a Wildcat he led Kentucky to just its second 10-win season since 1977. He started two wins over Florida and two wins over Louisville. He led Kentucky on a late game-winning drive in the Citrus Bowl victory versus Iowa.

The 2022 season has been a disappointment for Kentucky as a team as it failed to back up preseason talk of contending in the SEC East, but playing in the Las Vegas, Texas, Music City or Liberty bowls is unlikely to dramatically change the perception of the season for Levis.

“I think I’ll always kind of look back on this last season and have a little bit of kind of regret or just feeling like we didn’t quite get to where we wanted to, but I’ll sure as heck think about this (Louisville) game, too, and feel a lot better about it,” Levis said Saturday. “It’s really cool to get that last home win against Louisville. I can talk about it for hours, how much I love this place, but I’ve got a home here for the rest of my life. Just thank you Kentucky, thank you Big Blue Nation for everything.”

Regardless of if he plays in the bowl, Levis’ partnership with Kentucky has been a clear success for both parties.

Arriving as a transfer from Penn State who had been pigeonholed as a run-first backup quarterback by his former coaches, Levis helped restore balance to a Kentucky offense that had become too reliant on the run. Levis’ 17-7 record as Kentucky’s starting quarterback is among the best in program history.

Meanwhile, being showcased in a pro-style offense helped Levis climb NFL Draft boards after his career had stagnated at Penn State.

“Could have gone very differently when you enter that transfer portal,” Levis said before the Louisville game. “If it weren’t for Kentucky, who knows where I’d be, who knows what the future looks like for me. Just crazy to think how different my life was a couple years ago compared to now, and very thankful for all the people that have helped me get to where I am.”

Win over Louisville sends Mark Stoops into pivotal week for future of Kentucky football

UK freshmen dominated U of L. In NIL era, can the Cats keep their young nucleus intact?

Kentucky football’s Mark Stoops has a balancing act to perform when assessing season

Chris Oats, whose career was ended by a stroke, honored by Kentucky football on Senior Day

Kentucky football extends Governor’s Cup streak to four with win over Louisville