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Analyzing UK's Skill Position Production And Projecting for 2015

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Which positions were the most deadly for opposing defenses last season, and where might we see changes in distribution going forward?

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The Kentucky offense was more efficient in 2014 than it was in 2013, according to the advanced metrics. Surpassing the 2013 nadir was a low bar indeed, but a sign of progress nonetheless. I'm on record believing the offense will be even better in 2015. A component of that is a belief Shannon Dawson will be a successful hire, but a major component is the returning weapons Dawson will have at his disposal.

The following analysis will rely heavily on historical precedent through the prism of three variables: touches at each skill position (receptions or carries), yards at each position, and touchdowns at each position. These measurements are employed to determine how productive any given skill position was on the field. These measurements to determine efficiency were actually popularized by Air Raid coaches, and this post, in fact, draws its inspiration from a post originally published at the Washington State site.

The following analysis will highlight the production of the receivers at H, X, Y, and Z positions where the X and Z receivers align on the outside, and the H and the Y receivers align on the inside. The running back (F) position will also be measured. Here's the standard "Ace" formation to remind you where these positions typically line up (image courtesy of Coug Center):

Ace

And a reminder of which UK players filled those roles:

Position Player 1 Player 2 Player 3
F Braylon Heard Jojo Kemp Stanley Williams
H Ryan Timmons Ronnie Shields/Steve Borden Joey Herrick
X Javess Blue Dorian Baker Rashad Cunningham
Y Joey Herrick Garrett Johnson Rashad Cunningham
Z Demarco Robinson Blake Bone Rashad Cunningham

Note: Above is my attempt at a rough average of the depth chart for all of last season.

Full Season Totals

Touches Yardage
2013 2014 2013 2014
F 293 327 1304 1809
H 74 61 727 608
X 50 48 683 724
Y 18 30 152 387
Z 43 47 498 980

Data taken from CFBStats.com.

Running Back (F)

2014 saw more touches and total yards from the running back corps than the previous season. This despite the fact that UK emphasized more design quarterback runs with Patrick Towles than it did the previous season with Jalen Whitlow under center.  The running backs also averaged 1.25 touchdowns per game which was an increase from 2013 when they averaged 0.67 touchdowns per game.

In 2015 the touches per game may rise a bit from 22, but it's hard to imagine UK's running backs averaging much more than 25 touches per game given assumed scheme and returning personnel. Losing Braylon Heard early to the NFL will have some impact, but his departure will largely be negating by Stanley Williams and Mikel Horton who are both threats running or catching the ball, and will almost certainly be used in such a dual-purpose manner.

Jojo Kemp may see his touches drop-off this season, but depth will be an issue for this position especially as running backs inevitably get beat up over the course of the season. The certainty of running backs getting banged up makes it difficult to predict with a high level of confidence who finishes with the most touches after Williams. Speaking of which, an injury to Williams would limit what UK can do offensively. Boom is a key cog make no mistake.

In any case, this group's proven capable of making explosive plays, but converting in short yardage situations will be the single most important factor for the offense this season. This unit will have the best offensive line of the last five seasons at UK blocking for them; thereby eliminating most excuses laid at the feet of the boys in the trenches.

Inside Receiver (H)

2014 saw a pretty significant drop in the H receiver production from the previous year. Admittedly, a lot of that has to do with my grouping of the tight ends in this category. In 2013, UK had more production from that position, but that production fell off last season. The drop in production cannot be blamed on Ryan Timmons who had nearly 15 more touches in 2014, and averaged nearly 15 more yards per game. Timmons had some high profile drops, but he still had a 63.4% catch rate and 536 yards for the season which contributed to place him in the borderline Top 150 receivers in all of college football last season as a sophomore.

H should see a bump this season in terms of total touches and yards. The additions of Daryl Long and CJ Conrad to the tight end position should combine to overcome the 7 total touches and 62 yards from UK's tight ends last season. I think doubling those numbers are an achievable goal by the two youngsters, and I have little doubt those players and UK's coaches feel the same way. TV Williams will also add production in passing situations, and by season end will probably end the season with at least 12-16 touches. That's would be an achievement considering he backs up UK's best skill player arguably.

In 2015 the touchdown average must increase for this group as last season it only managed two touchdowns (a 50% drop from season before). If this position can't become a threat on the inside, the offense will become far less diversified and help to prevent defenses from careless blitzing packages or allowing poor coverage safeties to negate this position. UK wants to draw the opponents best safeties towards the H, in the hopes of opening up the possibility of big plays on the outside.

Outside Receiver (X)

The outside receivers by nature will typically see fewer touches than inside receivers. Their position requires running deeper routes which sometimes sacrifices production for explosive plays. This position's touches dropped last season by a smidge, and that was partly due to Javess Blue's drop in production, but have a freshman as a key reserve will typically have an effect as well. Dorian Baker returns after a promising freshman season that saw 37 targets for 19 catches and 200 yards, but his 51% catch rate was indicative of his youth and inexperience. Next season he will be asked to do more by virtue of now being the man at this position.

The graduation of Blue leaves Baker as the only previously substantial player at this position, so it's probably prudent to assume production for this unit will drop-off in 2015. Kentucky signed outsider receivers Jabari Greenwood and Will Jackson in February, but they'll be raw this season just as Baker was last year. If those two combine to make-up for the drop in Blue's production I would absolutely consider it a win for the unit in 2015.

Inside Receiver (Y)

This is a group to be excited about heading into next season. The production rose substantially last year, and perhaps will increase further in 2015. First, the coaches raved about Garrett Johnson last summer, fall, and this spring. He famously showed up on campus already having learned large sections of the playbook underscoring an emotional intelligence. He would go on to be UK's third or fourth best receiver last season with 40 targets, 22 catches, and a 55% catch rate. His 12.3 yards per catch were higher than his freshman contemporary Dorian Baker (10.5 yards), and he also had a higher catch rate than fellow freshman Blake Bone (48%).

Adding to this group will be the return of Alex Montgomery who was injured all of last season. Montgomery only played in 8 games his freshman season, but still managed  16 catches and 2 touchdowns. The sure-handed receiver will add important depth along with incoming freshman Therrell Gosier.

Outside Receiver (Z)

Here is another group to be excited about despite the loss of Demarco Robinson. Blake Bone played like a freshman during wide swaths of last season, but showed still managed flashes of his elite abilities -- represented by his 13.9 yards per catch. Add to the mix the return of Jeff Badet, who also missed last season due to injury, and this position can do some damage on the outside in 2015. Badet was described as the best receiver on the team in last year's spring practice session, and the hype continued to build through fall camp until a freak injury. While Bone primarily uses his length to make plays, Badet compliments with his high-level speed. Additionally, I suspect this position is the landing spot for Thaddeus Snodgrass, though I haven't seen reporting confirming that notion is correct.

Envisioning this unit outperforming last season is not too difficult assuming it stays healthy. Badet and Bone can average 25 touches over the course of the season as Badet nearly did so as a freshman, and Bone caught 14 passes last. Snodgrass' contributions probably won't amount to more than 10 touches, but that could make up the difference for slippage on Badet or Bone's part.

2014's Receiver Breakdown

Player Target % Catch Rate Yards Per Catch
Ryan Timmons 18.8% 63.4% 11.9
Demarco Robinson 15.1% 57.9% 15.2
Javess Blue 12.7% 60.4% 18.1
Garrett Johnson 10.6% 55% 12.3
Dorian Baker 9.8% 51.4% 10.5
Blake Bone 7.7% 48.3% 13.9
Joey Herrick 3.4% 61.5% 14.5

This table illustrates that between Robinson and Blue, UK is losing about 28% of its total targets from last season. That's a fair chunk, perhaps even more so because these were both outside receivers for the most part. This helps to demonstrate why it's so important for Baker, Bone, Badet to have great sophomore seasons. Luckily,  UK's freshmen receivers showed promise last year. Compared to other SEC freshmen and sophomores, they put up competitive numbers.

Specifically, only Tennessee's Josh Malone, Vanderbilt's CJ Duncan, and Texas A&M's Speedy Noil and Ricky Seals-Jones had more targets than Johnson, but he had a higher catch rate besides the Texas Aggie twin terrors (and also former five star prospects). Neither Baker nor Bone were very far off themselves. The injection of Montgomery and Badet should help too, based on their freshmen performances and the staff's comments for the last year or so.

Conclusion

UK returns some weapons next season and hopefully these numbers clarify at which positions and to what degree. Unless a significant amount of development occurs on the outside, UK probably won't be known as a consistent home-run hitting team next season. UK will, however, should be dangerous in the backfield, and will be poised to exploit mismatches on linebackers and safeties by the inside receivers along the seams. If safeties have to roll up to negate running backs coming out of the backfield, or slot receivers taking advantage of linebackers, then the outside receivers will definitely have their opportunities to excel.

Importantly, there's more competition at all the skill positions which will help out with depth, but also force players to get better in practice. I'm somewhat hesitant to apply a ceiling to what any given projected starter could accomplish this season based on that fact. Never underrate the simultaneous effect of good coaching and tough competition on an individual.

UK averaged 73 players per game last season with more total explosive plays than 2013. UK won't average 85 plays per game, as Shannon Dawson desires (that would have been the best in the country last year and averaged roughly 18 seconds per play), but could improve to around roughly 80 plays on average for two-thirds of this season given returning experience and familiarity with the overall scheme.

Averaging around seven more plays per game while at least holding steady on last season's explosive plays rate will result in an improved offense. Converting in short yardage situations will also be needed, and while I hesitate to say it for fear of jinxing, UK can't get much worse in that realm.