Vols’ next challenge could be the top overall 2023 NFL pick

LEXINGTON, KY - November 06, 2021 - Linebacker Byron Young #6 of the Tennessee Volunteers during the game between the Kentucky Wildcats and the Tennessee Volunteers at Kroger Field in Lexington, KY. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics (LEXING

There have been challenging quarterbacks who Tennessee has survived this season, most notably Florida's Anthony Richardson and Alabama's Bryce Young, and challenging quarterbacks the Volunteers have hindered, with LSU's Jayden Daniels topping that list.

Where Kentucky's Will Levis fits in will be revealed Saturday night inside Neyland Stadium when the No. 3 Vols face the No. 19 Wildcats.

"He's played a bunch of football," Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said Monday during his weekly news conference, "and everything kind of runs through him."

Levis, a 6-foot-3, 232-pound senior, completed 31 of 39 passes for 372 yards and three touchdowns during last November's 45-42 loss to Tennessee in Lexington. He also had 15 rushes for 47 yards and two scores, displaying both a strong arm and a scrambling capability that has the National Football League drooling.

This month alone, both CBS and longtime ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper projected Levis, who began his college career at Penn State, to be the top overall pick in April.

Yet a huge factor in Tennessee's triumph in last year's meeting was Alontae Taylor's 56-yard interception return for a touchdown midway through the third quarter that put the Volunteers up 38-28. That was one of 13 interceptions Levis sustained a year ago against 24 touchdown tosses, and he's on a similar pace this season, having completed 114 of 164 passes (69.5%) for 1,635 yards with 13 touchdowns and five interceptions.

Levis also lost two fumbles during the 22-19 defeat at Ole Miss on Oct. 1, which is the only loss the Wildcats have suffered this season while he's played. He missed the 24-14 home loss to South Carolina on Oct. 8 due to turf toe.

"Certainly there are some moments that he would take ownership in," Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said when asked if Levis has improved this season on the turnover front, "and then there have been others that are on the people around him. There is equal blame, if you will, but I wouldn't trade this guy for anybody.

"He's given us an opportunity to win each and every game, and certainly not having him in the South Carolina game was reflected in the way we played. This guy can do an awful lot, and he is playing exceptional football."

Levis ranks third nationally in yards per attempt at 10.0, trailing Tennessee counterpart Hendon Hooker (10.8) and Ohio State's C.J. Stroud (10.6). Stroud has thrown for 28 touchdowns compared to four interceptions, and Hooker has 18 aerial scores while being picked off just once, which goes a long way in reflecting why Stroud and Hooker are at the top of the Heisman Trophy race.

Kentucky's offensive line has been a hindrance at times for Levis, and the Wildcats don't give themselves as many opportunities to put up big numbers like the Vols.

"The tempo of play is so dramatic between these two offenses," Heupel said. "It's a different style of football game in that we have to understand there could be limited opportunities for us in the number of possessions. It's something we've got to understand going into this one."

Orange-tinted series

Tennessee is 82-26-9 all-time against Kentucky, and there are only four examples of one school having more wins over another opponent: Nebraska's 91 wins over Kansas, Oklahoma's 90 over Oklahoma State, Nebraska's 86 over Iowa State, and Alabama's 85 over Mississippi State.

Carvin honored

Vols senior left guard Jerome Carvin was named Monday as the Southeastern Conference's offensive lineman of the week. The 6-5, 321-pounder from Memphis played 48 snaps in Saturday's 65-24 dismantling of UT Martin without allowing a sack, a quarterback hit or a quarterback hurry.

"I've seen a ton of growth from him," Heupel said. "He is continuing to physically change his body, which is allowing him to play in a better football position consistently, which allows him to play with better technique for an entire game.

"He's one of the great leaders inside of that room, and it's a group that's really tight and likes being around each other."

Through the first eight weeks of this season, the Vols have earned a league-high 10 weekly honors, their most in a single year since having a program-record 11 in 2004.

Personnel updates

Senior safety Jaylen McCollough, who was arrested Oct. 9 on a felony charge of aggravated assault, has resolved the matter with UT's Office of Student Conduct & Community Standards. He will not face a suspension or probation through the school, but the incident has yet to be wrapped up from a law enforcement standpoint.

"The campus part of his process is complete," Heupel said, "so now it's just the other part of the process."

When asked about players who were injured this past weekend, Heupel thought that nose tackle Elijah Simmons would be available this week but said third-string quarterback Tayven Jackson would not. Heupel did not have updates for those players who were inactive against the Skyhawks.

Odds and ends

Tennessee jumped from 10th to eighth nationally in run defense and is now yielding just 90.9 ground yards per game. ... Senior receiver Ramel Keyton on position coach Kelsey Pope's energy in games: "We're up like 50, and he's still on us like we're down 30." ... The Vols are plus-5 through seven games in turnover margin and have only lost that category once, finishing minus-1 against Alabama. ... Hooker: "I am the best basketball player on the team." ... Next week's game at Georgia will have a 3:30 kick on CBS. ... Senior safety Trevon Flowers was named Monday among the 12 semifinalists for the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.