I love the SEC and Saturday’s in the southeast during college football season. There is no better conference in America when it comes to college football than the SEC. The rich tradition of the league and the list of stars that have come from this league that changed the game of football and the way that it was played and coached.
Let’s kick this off with a little run-through of some of those names. The coaches are legendary, from Paul William “Bear” Bryant, Pat Dye, and Johnny Majors to Urban Meyer and Nick Saban, this conference has seen coaches that changed the game forever.
Its player’s history is extremely rich too. From Peyton Manning to Herschel Walker, to Bo Jackson and Julio Jones, national championships and thousands of players that have moved on to play in the NFL. The prestige surrounding the conference is incredible, and it makes our Saturdays better in the long run of the fall and winter months.
Every season, there are NFL prospects lined up in large numbers looking to make an impact on the future NFL. The game that they love, that they have given so much for and pursued an almost impossible dream is becoming a reality for many of these players. This, to me, is one of the biggest things that really makes this game special.
Kentucky has been a part of the SEC since it’s conception in 1933, and it’s oftentimes forgotten that Kentucky is where Coach “Bear” Bryant got the start to his SEC coaching career when he took the head position in 1946. The Wildcats were a formidable opponent most of his tenure, and he left the position to take the Texas A&M job.
Kentucky has struggled since, seeing good seasons from time-to-time. However, Kentucky is seeing the highest level of sustained success under coach Mark Stoops since the Bryant days, even reaching as high as 11th on the AP Poll in 2018. The last time the Wildcats had been ranked that high was in 2007 when they peaked at 8th best in the country.
Who Kentucky lost from last season
Kentucky had a fairly successful 2019 season, compiling an 8-5 record and producing two prospects into the 2020 NFL Draft. Wide receiver/running back Lynn Bowden ended up playing quarterback for the team through most of the 2020 season and heard his name get called in the 3rd round of the NFL Draft, landing with the Las Vegas Raiders.
In the fourth round, the Detroit Lions selected Guard Logan Stenberg, a solid interior guy who played well in Mobile for the Senior Bowl to solidify his draft stock. Outside of these two prospects, Kentucky was relatively free of harm from leaving impact players.
Kentucky isn’t normally a school that produces a lot of NFL talent, rather sporadically producing several key prospects before not seeing one get drafted for a couple of seasons. Check out this table below to see what I mean.
The prospects this season
Kentucky has a slew of returning talent this year, several guys having a real chance at getting drafted. Here are six guys that you need to know something about entering the season.
HB Asim Rose (Rs-Sr)
#10 | 6’0″ | 200 lbs | Garfield Heights (Cleveland, Ohio)
Asim Rose hasn’t produced the best statistics yet, but it isn’t from a lack of talent. Things just haven’t played out the right way for him yet. He was a suitable back-up to starter Benny Snell as a sophomore, and the offense struggled with traditional quarterbacks last season, forcing Kentucky to play running back/receiver Lynn Bowden at the position in a zone-read based set.
Asim Rose is an excellent athlete and is a good runner and receiver out of the backfield. Because of the need to add wrinkles to the Kentucky offense this past season, Rose ended up playing in several roles. He was a wildcat quarterback, a slot receiver, but mostly halfback.
He’s very explosive. When he is playing with heart, he’s a difficult guy to contain and has a tremendous amount of energy. His contact balance is excellent, as he is able to fight off multiple defenders for extra yardage. Ball security isn’t an issue with him either, as he has yet to fumble to football in his career. He’s also a solid receiver, and I didn’t see him drop more than one pass.
The thing that will hold back Rose from being a top talent in the league is that his lack of effort isn’t play-to-play consistent. He is oftentimes too sluggish and doesn’t always play with the energy that is required and that I want to see. He’s not an effective blocker either, and that will limit his role outside of third down in the NFL. I think Rose is a good prospect who can become an impact player at the next level, but he’s not likely to find that special role early on in his career. He’s going to be used as a third-down back somewhere, and probably won’t really bloom until year three or four.
Grade: Future Impact (2+ years back-up).
OT Landon Young (Rs-Sr)
#67 | 6’6″ | 315 lbs | Lafayette (Lexington, Kentucky)
Landon Young is every bit of 6’6″ and 315 pounds. He’s started in 19 games and appeared in 36. He was named the captain of the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team and was named to the SEC Community Service Team. Young is a good dude and a powerful role model. According to his college bio, he missed 1 assignment in 754 snaps last season.
Young appears to be every bit of a powerful, large-frame blocker who can move people at will. He’s still a little raw in most aspects of his game. His hand usage at times looks prehistoric and wild, flailing while grabbing a defender.
I do like that he plays with a lower pad level than most at his size, and it’s definitely a good advantage when he gets hands on a defender. The other thing that I don’t see consistently in his run blocking is that Young is not going to consistently push into the second level. He’s focused on one block, and he stays with that one block, struggling to keep his eyes moving and looking for the next place to go.
His pass sets are not perfect, but he shows good footwork and keeps his shoulders square. These are positive traits that prove he can be good. I don’t think he shows very good bend, and when he plays against guys who get low and are strong, AKA most NFL pass rushers, he’s going to struggle with power.
Overall, I think that Young shows a lot of potentials, but his skill-set is better suited to play the right tackle. I don’t foresee him moving there instantly, and being able to impact positively. He’s a couple of years away from being a finished project, but he could contribute immediately in a run-heavy offense (like Baltimore) as a heavy-run-package blocker.
Grade: Future Impact (2+ years back-up).
IOL Drake Jackson (Rs-Sr)
#52 | 6’1″ | 300 lbs | Woodford County (Versailles, Kentucky)
A first-team All-SEC player last season (according to AP and Athlon Sports), Drake Jackson is one of the higher regarded centers in the SEC right now. He’s entering his fourth season as a starter for the Wildcats, already having logged 33 consecutive starts at center.
Jackson is hands down the most NFL ready prospect on this team. While he isn’t the biggest prospect, he’s quick enough and strong enough to be very effective as both a run mauler and a pass blocker.
The only potential issue that I see with his transition to the pros is that he is so short. We saw this with Nick Harris out of Washington this past draft cycle, where he matched up against top seniors in Mobile and couldn’t go toe-to-toe with them in 1v1’s. Height is an issue, but as long as he plays just high enough, he has the strength to work through it very well.
Overall, Jackson is a guy who won’t be drafted to play immediately, but he should see the field quickly, especially if he ends up in a scheme that primarily runs zone blocking.
Grade: Low Impact (Back-up/Future Starter).
LB Jamar “Boogie” Watson (Rs-Sr)
#31 | 6’2″ | 240 lbs | Bishop McNamara (Brandywine, Maryland)
Jamar Watson was expected to fit in the same type of role that Kentucky has used it’s alumni Bud Dupree and Josh Allen before him. It’s an outside linebacker that is expected to cover all three facets of the game: stifling run defense, intense pass rush skill, and pass coverage ability. Watson, now entering his third season as a starter, is primed to take the big leap that both Dupree and Allen made in their final seasons before going pro.
Watson has been fairly productive since becoming a starter, collecting 16.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks. He started 7 games in 2018, and then another 11 in 2019. He finished 6th in the SEC last season in both tackles for loss and sacks.
The thing that is clear about Watson from the moment that you turn on the tape: he’s not a solid run defender. Watson struggles to disengage from blocks and make tackles as the run play comes in his direction – even when being blocked by tight ends.
The reason that Watson ends up lined up against tight ends so much is that Kentucky likes using him to cover them. He is very athletic for his size, allowing him to stay with them down the field. It also gives him the ability to play zone coverage efficiently. He’s not the most consistent man coverage linebacker yet, but he’s working on it.
Lastly, it’s important to note that he can rush the passer. Even when lined up against offensive tackles, he shows excellent burst and quickness as well as good bend to move around people. If he improves even in the slightest this season, because of all of the one-on-one opportunities that he gets with tight ends, he’s going to be a force in the SEC this year.
Grade – Low Impact (Back-up/Future Starter)
CB Cedrick Dort (Rs-Jr)
#3 | 5’10’ | 180 lbs | Dwyer (Palm Beach Gardens, Florida)
I think Cedrick Dort will see a lot of interest across the NFL simply because of the way that he was used in the Kentucky scheme. Dort was used as a rover safety/slot cornerback to an extent. While he’s not the biggest player, he plays much longer than he is listed.
I like him, and I think he’s an intriguing fit in zone cover-two defenses. He shows a good athletic profile for a conservative, front-based defense. He appears to be a good tackler in space, and instinctive on the back end.
The issues? Clearly, there isn’t enough speed in his game. He’s quick, but not nearly fast enough to keep up with receivers in man coverage. I don’t see him playing cornerback at the next level, rather maybe being worked into the slot as a rover at some point in his career. It’s a long shot, but it’s there.
Grade: Low Priority (UDFA).
CB Brandin Echols (Sr)
#26 | 5’10” | 175 lbs | Southaven (Memphis, Tennessee)
Brandin Echols isn’t the biggest man on the field, but he certainly has one of the biggest hearts and takes great pride in his work. Look at the fact that he was a 2019 All-SEC Academic Honor Roll student or the fact that he is one of the best run defenders that Kentucky has in their secondary. He’s a good prospect.
Echols is a surprisingly sturdy run defender. He’s not the biggest player on the field, if anything he needs to put on more weight, but Echols can hold his own against receivers on the perimeter and is solid at shedding blocks to make plays.
Size is huge in this case, and I don’t think Echols has the speed to hold up in the SEC. If you watch what Kentucky does schematically, they rotate the secondary a lot to keep offenses guessing. By moving the players all over the field, the opposing quarterback struggles to identify where his match-ups are throughout the game because they are always changing. That’s going to limit the draft grade as well because it’s clear that they are masking overall speed on the back end of the defense.
Grade: Low Priority (UDFA).
Kentucky Wildcats 2021 NFL Draft Projections
At this point of the year, it’s always hard to pinpoint exactly where these prospects are going to get drafted. There is an entire season ahead of evaluation, to grow, and to mature. Many of these prospects will grow and mature.
Drake Jackson is about at the peak of his ability. He is so technically refined that it’s hard for me to imagine him getting any better over the 2020 season. Jamar Watson has a chance to be a first-round pick, but this linebacker class is shaping up to be pretty deep, especially in the SEC, and he would have to have a phenomenal season before he would have a chance at going first round.
I think the guy here with the most upside if Landon Young. He’s big, he’s strong, and once he puts everything together, he’s going to be very good. The NFL is going to love his character, and he would be a good face for someone to draft.
Low Impact (Back-up/Future Starter)
IOL Drake Jackson
LB Jamar Watson
Future Impact (2+ years back-up)
OT Landon Young^
HB Asim Rose
Low Priority (UDFA)
CB Cedrick Dort^
CB Brandin Echols
^Denotes that there is more than a 50% chance that the prospect will improve their draft grade during the 2020 season.