Will Levis is confident he can quiet NFL draft doubts
IT’S WILL LEVIS‘ pro day at the University of Kentucky, where the zip on his drag routes and 70-yard bombs take center stage. Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel is in Lexington; Frank Reich, newly hired to helm Carolina, cradles a Dunkin’ Donuts cup nearby. Seattle’s Pete Carroll is here, too.
They’re all watching Levis play perhaps the highest stakes moment of his life, yet the quarterback radiates calm.
In the poke-and-prod marathon of the NFL draft process, the 6’4, 230-pound Levis is at mile 25. From 2021-2022, he was one of five Power 5 QBs with a 61% completion percentage and 22 passing touchdowns against the blitz. “If you could draw up an NFL quarterback,” Mel Kiper Jr. once said, “he’s that guy.” But that guy has also been dogged by inconsistency, including accuracy concerns on touch throws and a surfeit of turnovers. Levis finished his college career with a 66 Total QBR, which would be the sixth lowest of any FBS QB to be selected in the top 10 in the past 15 drafts.
So, depending on who you ask, he’s either a franchise quarterback or a bust in waiting.
Levis’ arm took him from central Connecticut high school obscurity as a three-star recruit and the 35th-ranked QB in 2018 to Power 5 football at Penn State and Kentucky. He doesn’t wield Bryce Young’s resume, the sustained statistical dominance of C.J. Stroud or the historic combine heroics of Anthony Richardson — though each carries their own however: Young’s sub-6-foot frame; Stroud’s perceived lack of pocket mobility; Richardson’s accuracy struggles.
What Levis does have, and what NFL franchises mortgage futures on every April, is a tantalizing perhaps.
In four days, he’s expected to step onto a Kansas City stage and pose with Roger Goodell as a billion-dollar franchise gambles on him. He’ll likely get asked whether he still takes his coffee with mayonnaise or eats bananas unpeeled (he doesn’t) or if he still watches “Scarface” before big games (he might).
“People can say what they want, I’m sure I’ll get some boos on the stage,” Levis says. “But who cares what people think? Whoever picks me, I’m going to do whatever I can to be their franchise quarterback, to be a master of that offense, to prove that I’m the guy.”
Quarterback prospecting is rife with coulds, maybes and mights. For every Josh Allen there’s a Josh Rosen, for every Peyton Manning, a Ryan Leaf. The ceaseless onslaught of the NFL may chew him up or he just may devour it whole. But in Lexington in March, Levis seems at peace.
All he has to do at the moment is breathe, drop back and let it rip.
IF YOU ASK Levis’ parents, Mike and Beth, chaos has always seemed to find their son. Including on the day he took his ACTs.
Will was en route to the test at his school, Xavier High in Middletown, CT.
“He’s on Route 9, getting off the ramp, the car skids [and] ends up in the large grassy median maybe a quarter mile from school,” Mike says from his sun-soaked kitchen on Connecticut’s shoreline.
Will was unharmed, but the car wasn’t drivable. He dialed his parents, orchestrated towing to a gas station, then sprinted down the street.
“He runs to school, walks in — didn’t mention to anyone what had just happened — takes the ACTs and crushed it,” Mike says. “The proctor said, ‘I would’ve never guessed.’ [Will] just assessed the situation: I’m OK, the car is going to be OK, the ACTs are the most important thing.”
From 2021 to 2022, he was one of six Power Five quarterbacks with 17 wins, 5,000-plus passing yards, 40 passing touchdowns and a 65% completion percentage — and did so while getting a master’s in finance. (He earned a bachelor’s in finance, with a 3.97 GPA, at Penn State in three years.)
“He doesn’t sit still,” says Beth, a Connecticut Girls’ Soccer Coaches Association hall of famer and All-Ivy League forward on Yale’s women’s soccer team.
“I checked in with him last night,” Mike adds. “He says, ‘Oh, I just finished a nice, little 13-hour day’” with Jordan Palmer, the quarterback kingmaker who fine-tuned Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow and Trevor Lawrence and who Levis spent eight weeks in California learning from. “Chalkboard, interview prep mechanics, physical training, speed training, eating. There’s no casual with Will.”
He once threw his high school team into a contentious philosophical debate by writing Is water wet? on the locker room’s whiteboard. The arguments lasted weeks.
“[Will] can poke the bear or be the leader,” says Andy Guyon, Levis’ head coach his senior year.
“I love psychological conundrums — not yes or no answers, but answers that require thought-out reasoning, good conversation starters or icebreakers,” Levis says. “Just ways to see how people’s minds work. …
“My mind always needs to be stimulated in some way. I love riddles.”
He knew he wanted to try and solve them at the next level, picking apart the best defenses in college football. But he had to combat a stigma.
“[Coaches] don’t look at Connecticut as having good football,” says Levis’ youth quarterback coach, Travis Meyer.
Only one Connecticut-born quarterback has more than 200 passing attempts in the NFL, according to Pro-Football Reference: Dan Orlovsky, now an analyst for ESPN.
“We weren’t really versed in the world of college recruiting,” Mike says. “When we got online and saw [how early offers] were happening, we’re like, ‘Gee, we’re a little behind.’”
Levis attended camps, but scholarship offers didn’t arrive until just before the start of his senior season: Central Michigan, Cincinnati, Florida State, Iowa, North Carolina, Ole Miss, Dartmouth, Columbia, Harvard and, yes, Yale among others. His legs and a 4.69 40 endeared him to Penn State head coach James Franklin, and Levis made the leap.
After his first season as a Nittany Lion, Levis’ parents say, then-offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne and Franklin told Levis he had the talent to be a first-round pick, but he’d need two years as a starter minimum. He continued to back up Sean Clifford, making 102 throws in two seasons.
“He knows how to adapt to wherever he is,” Guyon says. “He understands: What’s required of me in this situation?“
For starters, he knew he had to leave.
WITH CLIFFORD ONLY a year above him, Levis graduated early and entered the transfer portal in 2021. Kentucky and head coach Mark Stoops were determined to not let their guy slip away.
“I don’t care if I looked at the four or five quality reps that he had in Power Five games,” says Stoops. “I knew after seeing that arm, I wanted him on our team.”
When Levis arrived, his new teammates weren’t sure if he was the quarterback they’d been told about or a linebacker.
“We saw him throw the ball a few times during camp and we’re like, ‘Oh, he’s got an absolute cannon attached to the right side of his body,’” said Eli Cox, Kentucky’s starting center in 2022. “When the guys saw that, they’re like, ‘This dude could do whatever he wants in this offense. We can stretch the field 80 yards with one pass.’”
He was voted a captain weeks after his arrival.
“Some of the things he’d do in the weight room, goodness gracious,” says wide receiver Dane Key, who caught six touchdowns from Levis in 2022. “I saw three plates on there one time — he’d want to bench 275 … on a game week. The strength coaches would be like, ‘Will, you can’t do that, we play Florida tomorrow.’”
But bench 275 he did, then cannonballed a screening of “Scarface” that got him “jacked” before leading the Wildcats to a 26-16 victory over Florida.
It was a seesaw game for Levis: He rushed for a one-yard touchdown after launching a 55-yard bomb to Key, but also only completed 54% of his passes and a blindside sack turned into an interception midway through the second quarter.
Of Power 5 quarterbacks with fewer than 800 dropbacks since 2021, only Syracuse’s Garrett Shrader and Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker got sacked more often than Levis — “We weren’t experienced at the offensive line,” Stoops says — but Levis’ 23 interceptions were tied for the fifth-most of any FBS QB over the last two seasons.
“I threw too many turnovers,” Levis says of his time at Kentucky. “You watch the tape, interceptions in the stat book. But I feel like I was an efficient passer, an efficient quarterback in most, if not all, games I played.”
Of the 18 quarterbacks drafted in the first round since 2018, only one had more than 3% of his college throws intercepted: Josh Allen. That changes with Levis (3.4%) or Richardson (3.8%).
After his pro day, Levis talked about how his footwork — what he attributed to his proclivity for turnovers — was an area of great emphasis during his time with Palmer. “[We worked on] just moving efficiently, being able to come off a fake or off a movement, off-platform throw in a way to put yourself in a position to deliver the ball more consistently,” he told NFL Network’s David Carr. “A lot of times when I miss throws, I’m not doing that.”
Levis missed time or played through foot, finger and shoulder injuries in 2022.
“Against Ole Miss, he got tackled and dislocated his finger,” Cox remembers. “I was like, ‘Do I need to get snaps to the other quarterback?’” Levis popped up, saw his non-throwing middle finger snapped in the opposite direction — an image that immediately went viral — and jogged off. He was furious, but not about the finger; he’d been flagged for intentional grounding in the endzone, a safety. Trainers popped the finger back into place, like they would two weeks later with a dislocated non-throwing shoulder, and Levis came back in. Kentucky lost 22-19.
“Probably the worst play of my college career,” Levis says. “I didn’t get the ball out on third and long, took a safety, tore ligaments and got turf toe all in the same play. But I wasn’t not going to go out on that next drive. … As long as trainers say I’m good, I’m playing. You’ve got to adapt in those situations.”
Levis’ stock dropped from a stellar 2021 (one of three Power 5 QBs with 350 rushing yards, 2,800 yards passing, a 66% completion percentage and 30+ total touchdowns) to a less-inspired 2022 (one of four Power 5 QBs sacked 30+ times with double-digit interceptions). But Levis only had four games in 2021 where his Passing Efficiency Rating was above 150; in 2022, he had seven.
NFL insiders are still torn over which version is consistently him.
“There was just so much pressure on him, everyone thinking he was going to be the No. 1 pick,” says one NFL director of player personnel, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “He had a turnover at offensive coordinator, a broken toe, hurt shoulder … [so] he pressed at times. He’s so smart, so gifted, so aware of things that he puts too much pressure on himself.”
IN THE WEEKS following the NFL combine, Derek Carr lands in New Orleans as Aaron Rodgers emerges from his darkness retreat preferring to become a New York Jet. Las Vegas, oft-linked with Levis, gives Jimmy Garoppolo $45 million guaranteed. The Carolina Panthers trade up to the No. 1 slot and sign Andy Dalton to a two-year deal. Lamar Jackson, the 2019 NFL MVP, is still an unresolved thread.
Levis — before and after Indianapolis — seems unbothered. “Wherever I end up is where I end up,” he said in January. “I’m going to treasure every single moment of this process.”
But before all that, he plays the game in Indy. He meets with Tampa Bay, Las Vegas, Houston and Minnesota, the last of whom gives him a football to hold while talking. (“I don’t know if they just wanted to see my hand size,” he jokes, though his 10 5/8ths-sized mitts are some of the largest in combine history for a quarterback.)
He takes the podium and says his Pro style offense at Kentucky gives him a leg up on other quarterbacks. He talks about how he studied Joe Burrow’s pocket elusiveness and how Josh Allen — his most consistent pro comp apart from Matthew Stafford — toes the line between tenacious and reckless. He makes jokes about mayo in coffee and ranks his favorite fruits: “Pineapple, clementine — sleeper pick — and I’ve gotta go apple.”
Levis is asked why he’ll throw at the combine with so much on the line. His response — “I’ve got a cannon and I want to show it off” — and grin is memed into immortality.
The consensus is that he’ll be the third or fourth QB off the board.
“The tools are all there now,” an area scout, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says. “He needs to slow down. You could tell he was wound so tight [at Kentucky because] he didn’t get a lot of help. But he can really throw. He needs a place that’s stable that can let him learn for a bit before throwing him out there. The things he needs work on are fixable, but he needs the right situation.”
Levis is asked if he sees himself winning Super Bowls, and what he hopes to become. His eyes light up.
“I want to be the greatest of all-time.”
This time, there’s no grin in sight.