After going over Kentucky's 4-2-5 base alignment, basic pass coverages, and defensive versatility, it's time to mix things up and talk a little about Kentucky's "Air Raid" offense. It will be a broad overview that takes a closer look at what failed last year under Neal Brown's first season, and where one can reasonably expect improvement this season. More focused posts on the offense may be forthcoming dependent on available time, and if (somewhat) unique takes spring to mind.
Last season's offense did not resemble what UK fans knew as the Air Raid under the former Hal Mumme regime. Despite the fact the Air Raid itself has evolved a great deal since the 1990's, last season's offense rarely resemble even an offshoot. Against mediocre defenses the offense usually was efficient, but when it faced above average defenses it usually played behind the chains and lacked explosive plays.
After the team fell to 2-6 the production numbers fell across the board which may have been due to falling morale and cumulative injuries as much as anything else. Nonetheless, last year's offense did encouragingly improve upon the 2012 version.
The offense had to overcome various factors, but for the sake of oversimplifying, teaching a new scheme appears to have taken precedent over learning fundamentals, and rampant inexperience hurt the team. Steel yourself:
- Quarterbacks. Unreliable play from Maxwell Smith - who was still recovering from a shoulder injury delivered two years earlier - and from Jalen Whitlow. Both quarterbacks had arm strength, accuracy, and vision limitations. Defenses adjusted and then started cheating up because the deep threat was not viable. The most promising quarterbacks - Reese Phillips and Patrick Towles - kept their redshirts on.
- Interior Offensive Line. The loss of three year starters Matt Smith and Larry Warford continued to echo. Kevin Mitchell played injured for most of the year, there was little depth, schematic transition, and position changes also played major roles. Running between the tackles was negated, forcing many plays to the outside and defenses, again, adapted. An ineffective running game only makes an already limited quarterback's job harder.
- Skill Positions: Returning senior running backs without an effective offense line can only do so much. The lack of receivers was appalling in quantity (five scholarship returnees), and quality (none had ever caught a TD pass in their collegiate careers). Thus, there was a heavy reliance on freshmen and JUCO's.
- No Tempo: the offense played slow due to depth, but also inability to string first downs together. All the above factors contributed.
This season should see improvement in the first three bullets by virtue alone of returning experience. Brown, never one to sugar coat, has openly talked about the improvement he's seen in players. His comments have been echoed by Mark Stoops who is also usually plain-spoken. I doubt their comments are fluff in other words.
- Quarterbacks. All reports since the spring indicate they are better individually and as a whole despite no starter being named yet. Brown says they have all improved in the areas of leadership and accuracy. More effective quarterback play will open up the playbook preventing defenses from cheating like last season.
- Offensive Line. Returns everyone but senior Kevin Mitchell. Darrian Miller and Jordan Swindle were stalwarts at tackle last season, and Swindle has further improved, according to Bud Dupree. Meanwhile, center Jon Toth is reportedly the most improved player on offense, and last year's transition to center is far behind him. Kentucky was able to redshirt the rest of its incoming freshmen offensive linemen.
- Skill Positions: The running back position will be the deepest in memory. Whether their nickname settles on "The White Dogs" or "The Four Horsemen", they will open some eyes this season and help keep UK's inexperienced quarterbacks ahead of the chains. Even the third string running back was UK's best prior to two seasons of injury, and remains a physical specimen. All the starters return to the receiving unit that could be the most improved in the country, including leading receivers Javess Blue and Ryan Timmons. There are some explosive plays in this group.
- Tempo. The tempo should be improved with the upgrades across the offense. No upgrades no tempo, period. A faster tempo may be the deciding factor for UK this season against tough SEC defenses.
There are glaring areas for concern and they largely have to due with depth, youth, and experience. First, UK will continue to rely on relatively inexperienced players at the skill positions. True freshmen will be needed to play early at receiver in order to provide depth. Meanwhile, receivers Ryan Timmons, Javess Blue, Alexander Montgomery, and Jeff Badet will be called upon to improve exponentially in only their second seasons.
Second, depth will still be an issue along an offensive line still recovering from Joker Phillips' roster mismanagement. If a tackle goes down a true freshman or redshirt freshman is likely the next player up.
Third, the quarterbacks will be inexperienced despite their reported improvement. The first month of SEC play will be inevitably be an adjustment, and it will take game experience for games "to feel slower." UK may not need them to take over in order to win, but they will play an important role nonetheless.
The offense should be "significantly improved" barring an injury bug hitting the team. The ugly truth, though, is the offense was so woeful last season, just a moderate improvement will appear "significant." How does significant improvement look to eyes of everyone watching is one thing, but how it is represented quantitatively is another thing.
Achieving the level of success Brown helmed at Texas Tech in his second year may be too high, but I suspect it will be higher than what he achieved at Troy in his second year. By this rough standard, Kentucky will probably go from averaging 20.5 points per game last season to averaging approximately 26.5 points per game this season. That could translate to 2-4 more wins depending on defensive (still the big question) and special teams improvement.
All in all, that would be significant.