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The quarterback quandary

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What’s worked for Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw so far at UK?

NCAA Football: Kentucky at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

After a few disappointing weeks of Kentucky football, the bye week was a welcome respite.

And as you well know, the hot topic of the week has been “what will the Cats do at quarterback?” — especially now that it is clear Sawyer Smith is pretty banged up and we got a flash of what Lynn Bowden can do reprising his old high school role at the QB position.

When Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw came to the Kentucky before the 2016 season, their work at Cincinnati fostered daydreams of a potent, balanced UK offense producing 150+ yards rushing and 300+ yards passing each week. That is not exactly what we got.

What we got, though, was pretty good in terms of wins and losses; we have not missed a bowl game since their arrival, and our record (at least until this year) has steadily improved over their three years in Lexington. So what has driven this success in the win-loss arena, particularly with respect to the quarterback position that now seems to have a question mark hovering around it?

The big question that comes to my mind is the type of quarterback they build their offensive schemes around: does the solid, drop back passer who can run up big passing yards work as well within their UK schemes as the dual-threat athlete who might not be quite as adept with his arm but can make up for it with his legs?

A quick comparison of passing yards versus rushing yards by the UK quarterback in wins and losses since Gran/Hinshaw arrived on campus tells a pretty clear story. As Figure 1 shows, Kentucky has averaged about 170 yards passing in games it both won and lost, and the passing yards distributions are almost identical in both cases.

Figure 1. UK passing yards and quarterback rushing yards in wins and losses since 2016. On average, the quarterback had significantly more rushing yards when Kentucky won.

Rushing yards by the quarterback, however, tells a different story. In games Kentucky has won since the beginning of the 2016 season, the quarterback has rushed for over 40 yards per game on average, while in losses that average is less than ten yards; we see in Figure 1 that the distributions of QB rushing yards for wins and losses do not overlap, which illustrates a statistically -- and in this case practically -- significant difference.

The relationship between scoring margin and quarterback rushing and passing yards is consistent with the win-loss story. There is no statistically significant relationship between passing yards and scoring margin but, as we see in Figure 2, there is a statistically significant relationship in which quarterback rushing yards accounts for about 20% of the variation in scoring margin: this results in an average increase in scoring margin of one touchdown for every 35 rushing yards gained by the quarterback.

Figure 2. Scoring margin versus rushing yards for Gran/Hinshaw Kentucky quarterbacks. On average, this relationship represents roughly one touchdown in scoring margin for every 35 rushing yards by the quarterback.

Finally, if we look at the average rushing and passing yards for the four players Gran and Hinshaw have used as primary quarterback in each of their games so far and compare to the percentage of wins in those games (Figure 3), we find that the quarterbacks who were able to produce more yardage on the ground have much better winning percentages than those that are primarily passers.

Figure 3. Winning percentages for four Gran/Hinshaw UK QBs versus their average rush and passing yards for games in which they were the primary quarterback. Quarterbacks who can run as opposed to pass have fared much better so far in the Gran/Hinshaw schemes.

Putting all this together, one would conclude that the skill sets of Lynn Bowden fit quite nicely with the successful offensive schemes that the Gran/Hinshaw team has put together during their relatively short but successful time at UK.

Granted, the sample size is pretty small – especially for the passing quarterbacks, but then again maybe there is a reason for the small sample size of passing quarterbacks. And there is the distinct possibility that Gran will dust off the playbooks they used with the Bearcats that result in more production from the passing game. And, as we all witnessed, the Smith-run offense did not look too shabby before he was hurt in the Florida game.

Having said all that, for my money the tried and true approach overwhelmingly seems to favor Bowden, and I’m betting we will see plenty of him behind center as the year marches on.