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Kentucky Wildcats Football: Success In 2017 Hinges On The Big Three

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As the perimeter players go, so goes the 2017 offense, and it’s a fairly thin group.

NCAA Football: TaxSlayer Bowl-Kentucky vs Georgia Tech Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Spring practice begins this weekend, and will stretch out over the next month before culminating with the spring game on Friday April 14th. As any spring practice without a new head coach, little news will bubble to the surface beyond the rote and unvaried. Scheme and play-calling will be basic in the public practice(s) and final scrimmage. One only hopes there are no injuries, and a tentative depth chart heading into summer incentivizes workouts in the humidity of June and July evenings prior to camp.

The Case

That doesn’t mean it is too early to talk shop. The offense returns many pieces to include four offensive line starters and their experienced back-ups, along with Freshman All-American running back Benny Snell. Stephen Johnson also returns as quarterback, which is likely irrelevant given quarterback productivity doesn’t correlate to historic success at Kentucky.

The offense will need to overcome the losses of leading receiver Jeff Badet, experienced veteran Ryan Timmons, future NFL draft pick center Jon Toth, and explosive play-maker Boom Williams.

Let’s make the subtext text.

UK’s two best receivers from the 2015 season are returning for one final SEC run; however, it’s an open question if they can serve as an insurance policy against a Snell injury and minimizes teams from loading the box. The receiving corps must make-up for the loss of explosive play-making that left with Williams and Badet.

The Precedent

In the spring of 2015, I broke down receiver production and projected the strengths and weaknesses for the coming fall. The primary conclusion holds-up (but, wow, what a whiff on Shannon Dawson): UK was not going to be successful throwing the ball deep – despite Dawson’s headstrong efforts - but found success exploiting mismatches on short and intermediate routes.

Garrett Johnson and Dorian Baker were the leading receivers that season thanks to the latter bullying 5 yard hitch routes into 10 yard gains against smaller corner backs; while the former exposed slower linebackers and nickel backs in the middle third of the field. Leading the team in completions would typically be a cause for celebration until their numbers were compared against the rest of the country.

At the rate they were targeted in 2015, Baker was below average in catch rate, yards per catch, and yards per target while Johnson was below average in catch rate if not slightly better in the other measurables. One would be forgiven for forgetting their production in 2015 was comparable to the Randall Cobb and Chris Matthew season of 2009 if just looking at the numbers in a vacuum.

In 2017, the team will need deep ball threats to replace Badet. That particular throw is a particular strength of Johnson, and someone needs to alleviate the pressure on Snell. Johnson, Baker, and CJ Conrad all boast double digit yards per catch the last two seasons.

The Suspects

First, a reminder of the 2016 totals. The 2016 depth chart with returnees in bold:

F: Boom Williams, Benny Snell, Jojo Kemp

H/TE: Ryan Timmons, CJ Conrad, Greg Hart, David Bouvier

X: Tavin Richardson, Dorian Baker, Jabari Greenwood

Y: Garret Johnson, Charles Walker, Ryan Timmons

Z: Jeff Badet, Blake Blone, Kayaune Ross

Now, the positions relative production in 2016.

2016.csv

Position Touches Yardage
Position Touches Yardage
F 578 3167
H 49 569
X 23 368
Y 44 617
Z 38 762
Inside Receiver/Tight End (H)

Given the increasingly prominent role of tight ends as a hybrid slot receivers, this grouping includes two positions. The H-backs improved its production in 2016 largely thanks to CJ Conrad’s bump in production – his four touchdowns and yards per catch put him at the top of the SEC’s returning tight ends. Ryan Timmons also increased his production from his junior to senior seasons, but he graduates after a respectable career.

In 2017, the rate of production must at least hold steady despite the loss of Timmons. Conrad is entering his junior season, and Greg Hart will seek to increase his production as well. Charles Walker, Tavin Richardson, or a freshman may see reps at slot depending on the formation. It would not be surprising if Eddie Gran largely avoids playing a Y slot receiver, and sticks to having Conrad on the field full-time regardless of formation. This is similar to how Jacob Tamme was used in Lexington.

Heading into this season, this group is Conrad and Hart, but not much else. Depth issues will be a concern. 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 opponent’s best safeties in the hopes of opening up the possibility of big plays with one-on-one match-ups on the outside.

Outside Receiver (X)

The outside receivers by nature will typically see fewer touches than inside receivers, but this position took a bigger step back in production last season largely due to Dorian Baker dealing with nagging injuries. Baker had a 51% catch rate his freshman season, 57% his sophomore season, and 39% his junior season. This number needs to hover around 65% for him to have a strong senior season, and push for the top ten in the SEC. He has all the physical tools, and finished with two touchdowns in the last two games, but he only has one season left to show a consistent ability to catch the ball.

Beyond Baker, this position requires Richardson and Jabari Greenwood to also improve upon their 2016 numbers. More on Richardson below, but this position is another indicator of UK’s depth issues.

Inside Receiver (Y)

Garrett Johnson has been one of UK’s most consistent receivers the last three seasons. His production took a slight dip last season, but some of that can be chalked up UK’s running game being prioritized along with the transcendence of Jeff Badet. Encouragingly, his catch rate increased last season from 57% to 62% despite a drop in overall production. He did made the most with what he was given in other words.

Behind Johnson is former walk-on Charles Walker who is a serviceable back-up, but UK will need more over the course of the season. It’s possible Tavin Richardson gets reps at this position, or UK uses varied formations to use the Y less often when Johnson is not on the field (e.g. Hart at TE, Conrad at H, Snell at F, Baker at X, and Bone at Z in an 11 personnel formation). This is another position where newcomers could immediately contribute.

Outside Receiver (Z)

The transfer of Badet will impact this unit. Senior Blake Bone doesn’t possess Badet’s speed, and Ross missed half the season with injury earning an “Incomplete” grade for 2016. If you’re beginning to sense a theme, this is another opportunity for newcomers to contribute early.

2016 Individual Breakdown.csv

Player Target % Catch Rate Yards Per Catch
Player Target % Catch Rate Yards Per Catch
Garrett Johnson 21.40% 61.90% 15
Jeff Badet 19.00% 55.40% 20.9
Dorian Baker 12.20% 38.90% 14.9
Ryan Timmons 11.90% 65.70% 11.6
CJ Conrad 11.20% 57.60% 13.8
Tavin Richardson 5.50% 56.20% 17.8
Blake Bone 3.70% 55.60% 16.4

This table illustrates a number of things. First, UK is losing two of its top four receivers next season in Badet and Timmons in terms of target percentage. Second, this unit will lean heavily on Johnson, Baker, and Conrad and hope all three avoid injury. New players must emerge to replace the lost production of Badet and Timmons to a lesser extent, or The Big Three must increase their catch rates across the board if they get the plurality of total targets.

Optimistically, Richardson’s decent catch rate for his experience level suggests he’ll make the most of more targets in 2017. Hart also has a high catch rate of 75% on only 1.7% target rate, so he will also likely see his numbers increase this season. Ross (40% catch rate with 1.7% target rate) is too small a sample size with only five targets.

For perspective, UK’s returning level of production does not match the conference’s best. South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel (59 catches, 21% target rate, 71% catch rate, and 783 yards), Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk (83 catches, 29% target rate, 64% catch rate, 928 yards), and Alabama’s Calvin Ridely (72 catches, 29% target rate, 63% catch rate, and 805 yards) have better total production, but also higher catch rates (which in turn justify their higher target rates).

TL;DR

Johnson and Conrad have improved every season, and will need to improve once again for a unit that has little production; meanwhile, Baker needs to play consistently at the high-level he sometimes reaches. If these three players, and emerging talent, aren’t able to uphold their end of the bargain the offense is one Snell or offensive lineman injury away from being derailed.