A change to the college football calendar has set up what could be an essential week for the future of Kentucky football.
Normally, Mark Stoops and his assistant coaches would quickly head onto the recruiting trail following the Wildcats’ 26-13 Governor’s Cup rivalry win over Louisville on Saturday. But the NCAA changed the recruiting calendar to include a dead period that prohibits coaches from going on the road during first four days of the week between the regular-season finale and conference championship games.
Instead, coaches will stay on campus, meeting with their current players to gain a better handle on what the roster will look like moving forward as decisions about entering the transfer portal or using the extra year of eligibility granted in 2020 are made.
For Stoops, those conversations are only the start of what figures to be a hectic few days following the Governor’s Cup win.
“I guess it’s called relief to get that victory right there,” Stoops said after the game. “It’s going to be short-lived. I’ve got to get in to work tomorrow and really take a good look at things and see where we are at and go from there.”
First on Stoops’ agenda is likely determining whether any staff changes are needed to jump-start an offense that did not score more than 27 points in the last eight games.
Two weeks ago after a stunning loss to Vanderbilt, Stoops acknowledged he needed to consider what his offensive philosophy should look like moving forward. At the time, he ruled out in-season changes to his staff, but his track record suggests the end of the regular season offers a chance to make those decisions.
Stoops fired offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw the day after the regular season ended in 2020, before Kentucky played in its bowl game. Current offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello has faced intense criticism in recent weeks. If Stoops is to hire a fourth offensive coordinator in four years, he likely would need to make that decision before starting conversations with his current players about transfers next week and hosting recruits in December.
“I think we got better,” Stoops said of his offense. “We had to. We all work at that every day, you know.
“So, I want to enjoy this and let everybody enjoy this win. I know there is work to be done and we all know that, so I appreciate the effort and the plan to put ourselves in a position to be successful.”
Speaking after his offense totaled 346 yards in the win against Louisville, Scangarello did not sound like a coach prepared to be looking for a new job soon.
For the second week in a row, he expressed optimism about the future of the offense thanks to the core of freshmen and sophomores playing featured roles. Asked about the red-zone struggles that popped up again Saturday after being a recurring issue throughout the season, Scangarello said he had identified a few issues that could be fixed.
First, he admitted to being too conservative in his play-calling on early drives at times. Second, he acknowledged the sometimes plodding pace of his huddle offense can be a weakness on third downs by giving a defense time to sub in its best pass rushers.
“There’s little things that midseason you can’t just throw at the guys,” Scangarello said. “But that’s part of the future we can definitely help us be very efficient and much better in that area.”
Regardless of what offensive scheme Stoops elects to use moving forward, the Wildcats will need to replace star quarterback Will Levis, widely projected as a first-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, and running back Chris Rodriguez, who broke the school record for 100-yard rushing performances in a career (20) Saturday.
The quest for Levis’ replacement could start early as he plans to make a decision in the next week about whether he plays in Kentucky’s bowl game.
“He’s a true professional,” Stoops said of Levis. “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.”
Scangarello pointed to his work with the QB Collective camp in which he worked with top high school and college quarterback prospects while an NFL assistant as proof he has the type of relationships to attract a top-level transfer to compete with returning backups Kaiya Sheron and Destin Wade to replace Levis as starter.
If Stoops makes a coordinator change, the chance Kentucky’s next coordinator can attract a top-level quarterback transfer will surely be a primary factor to consider.
Deciding what the offense looks like moving forward will also be key in assuring the young playmakers on display this season to remain in Lexington.
Against Louisville, freshman receivers Dane Key and Barion Brown both caught touchdown passes. Freshman tight end Josh Kattus had a 70-yard reception.
Brown, who has been the most consistent target of transfer speculation, already has pledged his future to the program.
“I don’t know who started that rumor, but I’m BBN for life,” Brown said after tallying four catches for 44 yards and one touchdown against Louisville. “So, can you all stop the rumors, please?”
The recruiting dead period ends Friday. By then, Stoops will need to have settled on a vision to pitch to the recruits he visits before signing day in December.
Bowl selections will be announced in a week. The transfer portal opens the next day.
The decisions Stoops makes over the next seven days will shape the future of the program. Whether the Governor’s Cup win changed his thinking on anything is unclear, but going into a pivotal week with the high of a rivalry victory will provide at least one night of enjoyment.
“I’m proud of the men and the way they hung in there and finished,” Stoops said. “I think there will be time for reflection and looking at everything. There is always what ifs. It’s not like I’m going to live in the what if world all the time, but you have to really look at things and make sure we’re growing and moving the program to where we all want it to be.”