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Eddie Gran previews UK’s revamped offense

After relying heavily on the run, UK’s offense will look to find more balance in 2019.

Jason Marcum - Sea of Blue

Kentucky Football will look vastly different in 2019, and that’s especially true of the offense.

For the last three years, UK enjoyed the benefit of having the school’s all-time rushing king in Benny Snell Jr., who was ‘the’ weapon on offense.

Now, Snell is off making his mark with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and UK’s offense is working to become a more balanced unit that can win games on the ground and through the air.

The man tasked with making this happen is Eddie Gran, who is entering his fourth season as the school’s offensive coordinator. While his play-calling and ability to build a balanced offense has been questioned throughout his tenure, you can’t deny the fact that UK has been to three-straight bowl games since he arrived in Lexington.

Much of Gran’s pre-UK career as a play-caller has been focused on pass-heavy attacks, but he’s also shown he can adapt to his personnel and run whatever type of offense that gives his team the best chance of victory.

On Friday, Gran spoke with the media about what he hopes to accomplish with UK’s offense, who is stepping up in Snell’s absence, and how UK can better establish the passing game this season.

Here is a recap of everything he had to say via UK Athletics.

On whether a running back competition changes the way he calls the game …

“I don’t think so. You hope that one of those guys comes out of camp as the true guy. We are a little bit, I think, like 2016. When I first got here, we used three backs. That worked pretty well with Benny (Snell Jr.) and Boom (Williams). We had some guys that could run the ball. If one gets on a roll, you let him go. It’s just that confidence in terms of protection. Everything that we need them to do in the pass game, if they can do that, they’ll probably play. I haven’t seen the stamina out of these three yet because they haven’t had that opportunity. Try to push them hard in some of these scrimmages that we have coming up to see how many they can go in a roll and be effective. Benny got better as he went.”

On the excitement AJ Rose, Terry Wilson and Lynn Bowden Jr. bring …

“That’s what we really talked about this spring. Everybody says we’re going to throw the ball a lot more this year, so I’ll get this out of the way right now, okay? Everything starts up front in this league. It’s about the physicality. Big men lead the way. If you cannot run the ball, you’re going to have a hard time winning in this league. We want to be balanced. We want to be a little bit more balanced this year. If you had 80 plays, 40 throws, 40 runs, that would be perfect. That’s the perfect scenario. What we have to do is be more efficient in the passing game and more explosive. As you talked about AJ (Rose), maybe some of these backs, we could maybe have some more explosive runs as well. One out of every eight we want to have a 12-yard run or a 16-yard pass play. I think we have some guys outside now that can help Terry (Wilson) and our quarterbacks make some plays, not just Lynn (Bowden Jr.), because people will start doubling him, making it difficult. We’ll find ways to get Lynn the ball. I think we got some guys outside now that have matured enough that can really help us be more explosive.”

On quarterback Terry Wilson

“You know what, I’m one of those, I don’t know what they say. He has worked awfully hard. I think you saw the improvement in the spring at throwing the deep ball. We’ve got to be great at the little things. Last year we missed just throwing the ball, we missed a bubble throw 30 times. You’re talking about your slot receivers, Lynn being that most of the time, where he could have thrown that out there. Say just we get half of them right there, that’s 15 more touches for your best player. He’s going to improve on those things in our RPO game. I think what he’s begun with his technique, fundamentals over the offseason. I don’t think there’s any question he’s going to be a better football player.”

On the tight end position …

“We certainly have the pieces. I really like all those guys. Our tight ends are going to look really good coming off the bus. Again, I think you’ve seen my mentality of, yes, we are going to be physical, we do need to run the football. But play-action pass using use tight ends that can run, I think all of them can do that. You get them involved that way, use your personnel. CJ (Conrad) has a chance to do some special things where he’s at because some of the coaches are talking about the guy can block. Sometimes those guys don’t do that anymore in this world. I think CJ is going to be really successful in this league because what we asked him to do there, I think that’s going to help him. We always knew he could catch. There’s sometimes where they doubled him, or they took some things away. As we got later into the year, it got a little bit better for him. Those guys are weapons. They can run. I’m excited about that group.”

On tight end Keaton Upshaw

“Number one, as big as he is, is how well he runs. There’s no stiffness. He runs very smooth. What I liked about him is that he’ll stick his pace in there. He’ll get after it. Big bodies, sometimes like that they don’t. Early guys, freshmen, that physicality becomes tough. He showed us that he can do both.”

On the experience of Terry Wilson …

“I think you saw a little bit of a jump with Stephen Johnson just at the end of his first year as he finished it, then into his second year. Managing the game, understanding. The things I want to see from Terry (Wilson), you call a first down play, you’re looking for certain coverage, we have an alert, we’re going to throw a deep shot maybe. All of a sudden, they roll. He knows exactly the coverage. He knows exactly that alert is done right now. He goes to number two, goes to his check down, we’re done. Those are things we did not do very well. We’ve got to be better in terms of our football IQ at that position. That’s usually what happens from year one to year two. So that’s really what I’m really looking for him is understanding this offense better for us to get out of second and longs, third-and-long situations. We got to stay out of that. We did not do a very good job kind of in the middle of season from that.”

On former quarterback Andre’ Woodson’s ability to avoid the wrong situation …

“Yes, that’s exactly right. You have percentages, information, statistics, all that. You use them. They’re really good. But those guys on the other side are smart, too. They’re going to change things up. You call it again, you have that opportunity for a shot play, when they give it to you, take it. If not, check it down. You see the great ones in the NFL do it all the time, the (New England) Patriots’ running backs catch a lot of footballs. That’s because that guy that’s the center, he understands that rush is coming. He doesn’t want to get hit. He understands that a three-yard gain, a four-yard gain is because now he’s going to be in that third and four, third and five area. That’s where we need to be. That’s when we were really, really good last year.”

On the running backs’ involvement in the passing game …

“There’s no doubt. We did that this spring. Our guys caught more balls this spring than they ever have. That’s really understanding the whole package for them in terms of blitz pickup, knowing when you can get out. There should be times when we’re in six-man protection, but they get out so fast because they understand what’s going on defensively. It’s easy when it’s no-back, they’ve got free release. When you watch those NFL running backs, they get it out because they understand body language, they understand rotation. They’re looking to the same thing the quarterbacks are looking at. Yeah, I expect our guys to catch some more balls, and Terry (Wilson) being able to understand where those tight ends on those check downs, where those running backs are.”

On the receiving corps …

“I think Josh Ali is starting to prove that he can do that. Isaiah Epps needs to be more consistent. He has the speed. I’m looking for that to happen. The two guys that kind of came along towards the end of the spring was Ahmad Wagner, big target. You get that ball in his area, those guys got to make those catches. Also, Bryce Oliver. He was somebody at the end of the spring that I was really excited about, saw his progress. That’s going to be fun for that group as they come out. Again, as I started this, I do believe we have some playmakers beside Lynn (Bowden Jr.) that they can make some plays for our quarterback when that needs to happen. That hasn’t been consistent for us. I think this is the time that it needs to happen.”

On tight end Justin Rigg

“Keep growing in his maturity in the game. I think he can run and he’s really smooth. Justin, he’ll surprise you. He can run. His physicality at the point of attack is really good. I’d like for him just to be a leader and continue to grow in that position. It’s his job, just like Terry (Wilson’s), to lose. AJ Rose, whoever we have slated. We’re going to compete. He has a bunch of guys underneath him, just like I do at the running back position. I tell AJ every day, ‘You better get ready now, you have some guys coming after your rear-end.’ Same thing in that room. I just want to see him mature more in this offense in terms of the details and the fundamentals and taking care of his craft.”

On what stood out about quarterback Sawyer Smith on film …

“Toughness, smart, got rid of the ball quick. Just watching that, then talking to people that coached him, what he brings to the table, and that locker room. Those things are all so important when you have a guy like that that comes in from another school, transfer. If you get somebody that’s not right in the locker room, it can be a bad deal. So far, he’s shown all that. He’s fantastic to be around. He wants to learn. He’s a team guy. There was a guy that was a backup, came in, led (Troy) to a lot of victories, did what the coaches asked of him. I loved really his humility, the way he approached that.”

On the similarities between Sawyer Smith and former quarterback Stephen Johnson

“I don’t know that yet. Stephen Johnson was one of the toughest human beings I’ve ever been around, bar none. One of the toughest kids I’ve ever coached. I don’t know that yet. I haven’t seen him and looked at his eyes after he gets hit two or three times right underneath at the chin, he gets up and says, ‘Coach, don’t even think about taking me out.’ Pretty strong.”

On the experience of returning players …

“You get the starting five that have had a lot of snaps, then Naasir (Watkins) and Mason Wolfe. Seven guys that have played a lot of snaps. Enough that when you go out there, they’ve been through it. That’s a good nucleus as we go. You have Kenneth Horsey. You have (Taj) Dodson, Nick Lewis, some guys. Quintin Wilson. Now they’re developing. Those are the guys that will change places with those guys. Hopefully, we get some type of a rotation. We have to find out in the competition in the next 29 practices of who that nucleus is going to be. I’m excited about where we’re at.”

On Allen Dailey Jr. …

“In that slot position, you’re going to have him and Clevan Thomas (Jr.). Clevan is really going to be the backup to both sides, our Y and our F. That’s a young man that has to do something as well. Allen (Dailey Jr.) is big, physical guy. He’s not the fastest guy. He’s really consistent. As I heard coach talk about, as a freshman he kind of hit a wall. Hopefully we’ll have now, after a year, that you see something different from him. I really like him. I like what we’re going to have at that position because it’s going to be awfully competitive. But we need something out of Clevan Thomas. It’s time for him to be a good. It’s time for Isaiah Epps to be a guy all the time, not just here and there. There is no more time for that. That’s not what we’re looking for here. It’s time to have grown man pants on, then let’s go.”

On finding consistency among the wide receivers …

“Some of them have been young when they first started out here. (Isaiah) Epps and (Josh) Ali, should they have played as freshmen? Probably not. Allen Dailey (Jr.)? Probably not. Now we’re in our third year. You should see something really, really good out of these guys. You look at their bodies right now, how they’ve trained with (director of performance Corey Edmond) and (director of performance Mark) Hill, night and day. You look at our DB’s, all those DB’s that left. You look at them when they were young, it’s frustrating. It was frustrating for (head coach Mark Stoops). I think it’s been frustrating for me, for (Stoops), for everybody with the receivers, too. But now they’re bigger, stronger, faster. They know this offense. So, we should have more production.”

On expectations of defensive backs and wide receivers …

“Number one, that’s not going to happen. We got good players over there. I want them to compete. We talked about it last night. We got to compete, compete every single rep that you have. This game is about competing. If there’s a ball up in the air, it’s ours, not theirs. I don’t see us just coming out and dominating. But, yes, do I want to win? I did last year. Every year. I want to win every drill. Even against those guys last year, you know that’s the mentality.”

On running back Travis Tisdale

“That will be interesting. What I like about him is he’s really fast. As we talked about where we were with our running backs, we had guys that were 5-foot-11 to 6-2, 200 pounds. Had the big guys. We wanted a different change of speed. We went out and we looked, we found him. He’s tough, hard-nosed. He came in here and ran like a 4.32 laser right when he got here with (director of performance Corey Edmond). He’s explosive. He’s got legit speed. He has that Boom Williams type of speed. I know he’s got toughness from who coached him, where he’s from. He’s had a great summer. I love his attitude. It’s going to be fun to see him get some reps and see what he can do.”

On his offensive philosophy …

“This offensive philosophy is about your personnel. I learned more in 35 years of coaching after my first year here. You can remember in ‘16, come from Cincinnati, we’re fourth in the country, throwing it all over the place. That was who we had personnel-wise. We came here, (former quarterback) Drew Barker that first game, we’re throwing it. We had the guys around him. We felt like he had the arm to get it done. He got hurt. We had to do something. Personnel-wise where were we? Our offensive line was really good. Had some really good backs, tight ends. We had a new quarterback. We got into this Wildcat formation, and we tried every week to build around that package. People hadn’t seen it. We ended up with two 1,000-yard rushers. There was a point in there about two or three games, they said, ‘Where did this fool come from? Then we ripped off six games, then you become a hero. You’re smart again. I learned more that year about humility. It’s about team. It’s about wins. Is it not still about winning the game? The only thing I could have done last year is screw it up. That’s it. We have a brand-new quarterback. We could run the ball. We had a great defense. We played great special teams. If I go back there and I want to rip it around, because I want statistics? I wouldn’t be here right now because that wouldn’t have been very smart. So, we’re going to find out the personality of this team, see what Terry (Wilson) can do, build around our quarterbacks, go from there. It doesn’t matter, the bottom line is win the game.”

On playing with more tempo …

“I don’t think so. I don’t think so. What we have to do is we have to be efficient on first down so we can have more plays. That efficiency in our first couple years was really good. Four yards or more on first down. Now you’re creating more first downs. In Cincinnati, even running the ball at 280 yards a game, 250 yards a game there. We were number one in the country in first downs. We weren’t just playing lightning fast. It was about the efficiency of first downs. If you get more first downs, you’ve got more plays, therefore you have more chances at being explosive.”