LEX18 — Will Levis participated in his first official Kentucky football practice 10 days ago, on Friday, August 6th. After finishing his undergraduate classes at Penn State, the graduate transfer (who has three seasons of eligibility remaining) spent the past few months in Lexington, where he started building chemistry with his teammates and began getting acquainted to a new college campus.
Still, the Wildcats - or any college team, for that matter - couldn't practice in any official capacity or work extensively with the coaching staff until camp started in early August.
It didn't matter. It took Will Levis just those 10 days to prove himself to Mark Stoops, offensive coordinator Liam Coen and his own teammates. He was formally announced as the starting quarterback during a Stoops-led press conference Sunday evening.
"It feels great," Levis told BBN Tonight during an exclusive interview, which aired Monday night. "I've been working really hard and doing as much as I can to get to know the offense as much as possible, and to get to know the guys and be a leader for them. I’m glad I was able to show that to the coaches and get entrusted with the job. Now it’s just a matter of chemistry and getting ready for week one in two and a half weeks now."
It didn't always promise to be such a swift decision. Both Stoops and Coen discussed the importance of "getting it right" versus being in a hurry on UK's media day (which took place the morning of that first practice, August 6th). Things clearly changed once the coaches and all three quarterbacks - Will Levis, Joey Gatewood and Beau Allen - started practicing daily with the team.
“I think just his work ethic, command of the huddle, command of his peers, and obviously he’s a talented kid. He has some arm talent and some things that are difficult to coach at times, he has," Coach Coen said of what separated Levis so early in the quarterback competition. "He did a great job of coming in and running the whole show. Just like all the other guys, he has a lot to work on before the first game, but naturally that'll come with more reps."
Repetition is huge. It's part of the reason why the Kentucky coaching staff made (and announced) Levis as the starter so early into the season. In addition to giving now third-string QB Joey Gatewood an opportunity to transfer if he so chooses, it allows Levis to fully lock himself in with his fellow starters in practice, while Beau Allen will take the reps with the "twos."
Will Levis is already sounding like QB1 👀⬇— BBN Tonight (@BBNTonight) August 17, 2021
"I had to slowly learn how to connect and get through to each person as effectively as possible"
Full conversation ➡ https://t.co/ennDLoTzHP now pic.twitter.com/X4gq9oR5qM
"It’s hard to get enough reps for the quarterbacks. That’s one position where they need as many reps as possible, so we've always got to be conscientious of that," Coach Stoops told BBN Tonight. "It was good once we made this decision, we know who the one is and who the two is and can build to get those guys better now."
"Once we made the decision - talked about it with the team, talked about it with the quarterbacks - it’s time to move forward," Stoops added. "I feel like we have clarity in this situation. I think our team understands that. Business as usual today. Moving on, trying to get better. Will [Levis] had obviously more energy, more juice, more command because he was in charge, and he knew that."
The certainty of the situation, which came sooner than the Big Blue Nation largely expected in terms of a typical quarterback battle, especially following the media day comments, affects not only the quarterback reps, but the general attitude of the team, as well.
"Now that I know I’m the guy and the offense knows I’m the guy, being able to kind of assert myself as a leader more was definitely exciting for me," Levis said. "That’s something I tried to kind of withhold a little bit just because I know I wasn’t the guy yet, but now that I definitely am, it’s easier for me to be a vocal leader and be the guy that’s leading the offense."
✖️ No more holding back ✖️— BBN Tonight (@BBNTonight) August 16, 2021
Now that Will Levis is the OFFICIAL starting QB, he's ready to really start leading this team
See @KeithFarmer18's exclusive interview with @will_levis tonight at 7:30, only on BBN Tonight pic.twitter.com/LjWzljoNgz
“I felt like we had a little bit more cohesiveness, guys understanding this is the way it is right now and this is where we’re going," Coen said of the first practice following the announcement. "I think there was probably just a little bit more of a calming sense as opposed to understanding we’re still in this quarterback competition. Who’s the guy? It’s never an easy deal, but I think our players responded well."
That includes now-backup quarterback Beau Allen. The Lexington Catholic alum only saw the field in two games last year behind Terry Wilson, but the Kentucky coaching staff has repeatedly praised Allen's strides throughout the spring, summer and now into the fall.
"We feel extremely confident in Beau. Beau was playing very well all camp, and he’s game ready; he will be game ready by the time we get to our first game, like all of our players," Stoops said Monday.
Joey Gatewood, on the other hand, will now try his luck in the transfer portal. He won't practice with the Wildcats until he makes that decision.
"I’m far from perfect, we all know that, but I try to always keep the players in mind first. I’m always respectful to them. I know how hard [Gatewood] has worked," Stoops said. "I think making the decision early, giving Joey an opportunity to transfer if that's what he wanted to do to find a home, I'm all for that for him because I respect him and really appreciate the way he competed here."
Players 👏 first 👏 coach 👏👏👏— BBN Tonight (@BBNTonight) August 17, 2021
Mark Stoops on Joey Gatewood's decision to enter the transfer portal:
"Making the decision early, giving Joey an opportunity to transfer if that's what he wants to do.. I'm all for that for him because I respect him" pic.twitter.com/cpNJ1G8I8D
The thing about a quarterback competition is it doesn't only affect the quarterback. In Kentucky's case, consider key transfers Wan'Dale Robinson and Dare Rosenthal, plus a new offensive coordinator, running backs coach and offensive line coach, and it's clear the offense as a whole is already working through so much "newness." Solidifying the quarterback position takes one thing off the list.
Still, Levis is new to Kentucky. He spent three seasons at Penn State, recording 461 yards in eight games (one as the starter) last season. In 15 total career games, Levis completed 61-of-102 passes (just under 60 percent) for 644 yards and three scores, with just two interceptions. In the meantime, he played for two different Nittany Lions offensive coordinators. Throw in his high school coaches and now Liam Coen, and Levis has played for four coordinators in five years.
So no, despite being new to Coen, Stoops and the rest of the Kentucky crew, Will Levis is not new to picking up a new offense.
"I wouldn’t say it’s easy to learn, but I think the way Coach Coen teaches takes a burden off of us. It allows us to go out there and play fast and not have to think too much," Levis said of yet another new system. "With Coach Coen, I’ve definitely noticed a change in my presence out there. I feel more comfortable than I ever have, and I feel like balls are being thrown with less effort and more accurately than I've ever thrown them before. The offense makes sense to me, it's a deadly offense, and it’s going to work against a lot of different defenses that we face. And it’s going to be really fun to watch."
Coen called Levis's understanding of the offense at this point in the season "pretty high level."
"There are a lot of things we’re still working through, but I think now is the time we can take this thing to another level and take his understanding to a little bit less of a basic knowledge," Coen said.
“We worked some two minute situations for the first time today, which was obviously a new element with a still relatively inexperienced quarterback in this system," Stoops said in his interview with BBN Tonight. "We’ll continue to work a lot of situations."
The team has less than a week before its next scrimmage. Then, the real test - the first game of the season is slated for noon on September 4th against the University of Louisiana Monroe. There's plenty of positivity to read into, if that's what you're looking for, at least. But if there's one thing to know about Mark Stoops, it's that he's also a realist.
"We need to have a really big week. We’ve got to dive into some situational football because you could play a game 95 percent correct, but that five percent or certain situations can win or lose you games. We have to really work on football IQ, continue to educate them and work as many scenarios as possible, but also just get cleaner," Stoops said of his focus heading into this week of camp. "With all of the first, second, third down stuff, just be cleaner. The entire operation, try to clean up pre-snap penalties, sloppy football, ball on the ground, things of that nature."
"We got off to a really good start today, and I need to challenge them to have a great week. I want to be game ready when we step off that field this next Saturday when we get out of the stadium and are done with the scrimmage."
BBN Tonight will have continuing coverage of practice this week, as well as Saturday's scrimmage. Watch the show weeknights at 7:30 on the official station for UK Athletics, LEX18 News, or anytime on BBNTonight.com.
Follow along with the team on social media for up to the minute coverage: