I believe our football team is currently the worst team in the SEC and the roster is primarily to be blamed. I also believe the Big Blue Nation's fan base should measure this season on values other than the scoreboard to mark progress because deep roster issues are the biggest challenge to rebuild a program right after NCAA penalties. Judging solely by wins and losses will not be an accurate guide to progress this year.
First, I'm going to analyze the current roster, and later I'm going to explain why I don't worry about our coaching staff in the long run. Two major traits of a healthy program are limited roster turnover, and redshirting large portions of an incoming freshman class. Roster turnover indicates missing on recruits (talent or disciplinary) and creates a lack of depth. There have been several instances in the past few years where a player signed with UK and later transferred to a lower division. This is a sign that the coaching staff mis-evaluated his talent, and losing him hurts our depth as that roster slot should have been used on a contributing player.
Redshirting develops players and puts long term gain above short term pay-offs. Jerry Claiborne famously redshirted his entire 1982 recruiting class knowing full well they'd be terrible. They didn't win a game that year, but it paid off the next two years with six win seasons. If a freshman can't crack the two-deep then he needs to be redshirted so he can develop. Being a special teams role player is not a good enough reason to play him. There's no point in not using a redshirt if the player is not going to letter. I'm going to breakdown the 2010-2013 signing classes for UK with attention paid to the above factors.
- Class size: 27
- Roster attrition: 11(!)
- Players who didn't redshirt but also didn't letter: 4
- Class size: 25
- Roster attrition: 7
- Players who didn't redshirt but also didn't letter: 3
There are about 3-6 guys in this class who will probably graduate next spring, and who also haven't cracked this season's two-deep roster. I think they are strong candidates to not be back with the team next fall.
- Class size: 26
- Roster attrition: 10(!)
- Players who didn't redshirt but also didnt letter: 0
I believe 1-3 more of these guys will transfer by the conclusion of next spring practices due to playing time, i.e, they are being recruited over by the new staff further indicating the step up in Stoops' recruiting.
I believe the above numbers indicate the previous staff's roster mismanagement, and I think if anyone is aware of our depleted roster it is Stoops, Elliot, and Brown. They've consistently sent that message since the spring while toeing the line on outright player-bashing.
It's been in front of our noses too. Just look at our linebacker corps: they partly comprised of a former RB (Simpson), former QB (Brause), former Safety (Brown), and former DE (Forrest) to see how piecemeal this position's depth currently is, or that since 2008 UK has averaged 2.8 QBs per year while the SEC average has been 1.5 (the average would be even higher if not for Mike Hartline running the team for the entire 2010 campaign).
If we wonder why this team has been poor against the run, or the offense doesn't score points that info explains a lot of the reason why. There was no stability under the previous regime. Joker saying UK should retain him last fall because "we are only one year away from a breakthrough" seems a mockery now.
Luckily for us, I believe the coaching staff will improve this team via player development and recruiting but it will take years. Recruiting is the rising tide that lifts all boats as they say, and this staff has proven it can recruit at an elite level. Annual injections of talent will improve the program whether or not the coaches are no better than mediocre at player development, but I think they are at least above average in that department based on most of their track records.
Defensively, the coaching staff has strong credentials coaching at some combination of Florida State, Alabama, LSU, Syracuse, and Tennessee. Reading the coaching bios linked on UK's roster page informs the reader of the statistical improvement that was made at the defenses they coached. In short, I assess that these guys know how to coach physical football, but a combination of our depleted roster and our incredibly tough schedule betrays the improvement these coaches are producing. Now, if the defense continues poor tackling into the heart of the season I'll start being concerned.
Offensively, I actually share some of the concerns of the BBN. Don't get me wrong, I think Neal Brown was the right hire but I still have questions. The WKU game is the only piece of data we have so far, so the questions I had about some of the play-calling, offensive philosophy, and tempo I'll keep to myself and just put my trust in Brown's judgment for now.
Statistically, the Air Raid at Texas Tech under Brown did put up big numbers, but the best performances came from its out of conference (OOC) games. The averages: 360 yards passing per game and 209 rushing yards per game (OOC) versus 347 yards passing and 109 yards rushing in conference. You can see the numbers dip for in conference games, and I think we know the SEC defenses will be better than those of the Big 12. Now, if we get those numbers, that would still be a huge improvement over last year's but can that level of output be achieved in SEC play? We shall see, but certainly not with the current players.
As far as player development goes with the offensive staff, I don't have many concerns except for maybe the O-line. The OL played solid in the WKU game but made several silly penalties that hurt our field possession. I'm anxious to see how they perform in SEC play. Additionally, I've yet to see Coach Schlarman get a commitment from a player he primarily recruited yet. His only previous coaching was at Troy University, and when I think we replaced renowned OL Coach Larry Summers with Schlarman, maybe I am prejudiced a bit.
Special teams-wise, I think Peveto is a great coach. There's not a lot to say really. In the WKU game our special teams looked greatly improved over last year's squad. They just did the fundamental things right. The only black mark was the missed extra point and the poor onside kick. Troubling no doubt, and it'll be interesting to see if Mansour performs those duties going forward.
With the WKU loss, I will be amazed if this team finds a way to win 4 games. In all likelihood, they'll only win 2 games. If we reach 4 wins I believe the results inarguably validate the abilities of these coaches (and just think what they'll accomplish with more talented players). In the meantime, it is our job to be patient and support the program to make recruiting easier if nothing else. New talent needs to be injected into this roster, and that talent will take 2-3 years to mature itself. SEC football programs are very rarely turned around in 1-2 seasons. Rich Brooks was 9-25 combined in his first three years before a breakout fourth year.
Waxing philosophical to close things out, I often wonder if our fan base views our football program through the prism of our prestigious basketball program. What I mean by that is the BBN fully expects the basketball team to win more than it loses — for entirely valid reasons like infrastructure, donor support, coaching, etc. — and so the football program should as well. This view neglects that it is harder to rebuild a roster of 85 than it is a one of 14, or that our football team typically is favored in only 3-4 games a year, or that the football program can't rely on prestige to compete for the best recruits. I believe the program's trajectory is finally rising, but let's be patient this season, because we are currently at the nadir.