Hiles: Cats are clearly better on offense

Published 11:04 am Wednesday, June 21, 2023


Contributing columnist

Former Kentucky/NFL defensive back Van Hiles says it is a “resounding yes” when asked if UK football has upgraded its offensive skill positions for the 2023 season even with the loss to NFL draft picks Will Levis and Chris Rodriguez off last year’s team.

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“If you think about it this will be the second year of the two best receivers (Barion Brown and Dane Key) from last year. They should be better even with no coaching just from the experience they got last year as freshmen,” said Hiles.

“Having (offensive coordinator) Liam Coen back will help (receiver) Tayvion Robinson. So that is all good news.”

Hiles was a Levis supporter and knows he played injured most of last season after his spectacular 2021 season when UK won 10 games. He says Levis and Stephen Johnson, both transfers, had a similar impact on Kentucky football with how they re-energized the program.

“But I think we got a prototypical quarterback (North Carolina State transfer Devin Leary). We had no idea what Will would be coming off his time at Penn State. We had no real idea about his strengths other than running the ball.

“We got a guy now who could be all-SEC. You know what his numbers were at North Carolina State and coming in with Liam who made Will who he is has to be a hug plus for him.’

Hiles sees Leary as an “upgrade” in being able to process defensive coverages and a “downgrade” in arm strength from Levis.

“But if the offensive line is not as good and has issues like it did last year, Leary’s ability to process things quicker will help the whole offense out,” Hiles said.

Hiles understands Rodriguez averaged over six yards per carry in his career and was always falling forward.

“That falling forward was a big advantage last year because our offensive line was not as good and he got hit a lot behind the line. I think this offensive line will be better and the running back will not get hit behind the line of scrimmage as much,” Hiles said. “We need a running back who is explosive and can turn a 12-yard gain into 30 yards.”

Vanderbilt transfer Ray Davis is the projected starter — and Hiles says he has better “vision” than Rodriguez to find holes. However, Hiles believes true freshman Jamarion Wilcox has the explosiveness to turn medium runs into much bigger gains.

“I think he has something special if he shows the ability to get on the field. He is explosive enough to turn a 10- to 15-yard play into a 40-yard gain,” Hiles said.

Hiles also likes the running back depth. He noted that last year if Rodriguez went out, there was a drop in production at running back.

“I like running back by committee. Go with who is hot that day and give him the carries,” Hiles said.

He’s a big fan of senior running back JuTahn McClain. He has played in 30 games and has 505 yards rushing and 24 catches for 142 yards.

“The talent is there. It just has not clicked yet,” Hiles said. “He might be the most talented running back in the room. He can run, is a great route runner and has great hands. Overall, I just think he might be the most complete back and ready for a big year.”