Much like beauty, the perfect play call is often in the eye of the beholder. Everybody has their own personal preferences and value certain aspects over others.
The debate on ‘what is hot and what is not’ will never lose its fire; nor dissenting fans upset with disappointing coordinators. Play calling is inherently a divisive endeavor and naturally comes with bountiful criticism. Former UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran certainly heard the boo birds more than once during his half-decade in Lexington.
After fielding one of the worst offenses in the Mark Stoops Era, Gran and his running mate/ Co-OC/QB coach Darin Hinshaw mutually agreed to part ways with Kentucky this past weekend. The ending was far from ideal, but Gran’s tenure at the helm of UK’s offense helped inch the program forward.
I’ll have another piece that specifically examines the 2020 offense in detail. This was meant to be a bit more macro. Still, before we glance over each offensive campaign under Gran’s direction, we should address some obvious talking points.
Kentucky’s offense over the last five years at its best has been relatively average. None of Gran’s offenses finished better than 52nd in ESPN’s SP+ Ratings, 56th in Total Offense, or 60th in Scoring. Aiming to run less plays and play small allowed UK to keep it close with superior teams, but UK had noticeable limitations under Gran. I mean if the best you can do is average, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Brought in to beef up UK’s rushing attack, Gran did exactly that. Over his five years, the Cats’ averaged over 207 rush yards/game and 5.0 yards/carry. Gran’s play calling begat five 1,000 yard rushers — a feat UK had failed to accomplish since 2008. He oversaw the most prolific rusher in Kentucky history and made a makeshift scheme rooted around a receiver playing quarterback the talk of coaching circles. Even during his first fall in Lexington, Nick Saban wasn’t shy of showering Gran and his rush game with compliments.
Despite Gran’s ability to turn the Cats into a competent rush offense, he and his partner in crime were less apt at progressing UK’s pass game. After putting up highs in 2016, UK’s yards/pass has dropped each subsequent season.
Versus SEC defenses, UK’s passing Success Rate had worsened the last three years. Kentucky’s Passing Offense by volume has finished in the bottom10 nationally in that span as well.
Failure to lure game-changers and develop incumbents ultimately did in the Gran/Hinshaw duo. Sure the Cats landed a few top tier talents, but Kentucky’s firepower was considerably less than its conference contemporaries.
Other than having a sure-fire star at quarterback, the biggest element to aid a passing game’s success is providing it with quality outlets; at least, that’s how Expected Points Added views it. While the graph below is looking at NFL numbers, it still holds true in college.
While it certainly came to a head in 2020, UK’s receivers have increasingly become less keen at creating separation. A revolving door of WR coaches certainly comes into play in that position groups lack of growth. But the bottom line was, those dudes aren’t a quality collection of pass catchers.
The last two years alone have seen the Cats post a 27% Contested Target Rate - one of three highest in the conference in that span. UK’s receivers have only been able to haul in 25.9% of these attempts (To be fair about 20% of these targets were charted as uncatchable). Still, it’s long been apparent UK had to force things into tight window because of a general inability to stretch the field at any level. Forced to funnel targets into contested chances so often further stagnated the pass game.
Gran’s best offenses maximized its play makers. But that style predominately telegraphed this offense’s intentions. Each passing year saw the offense become more run-oriented with the passing game failing to deliver much value. With less reliable options on where to go with the ball, Gran opted to not get too cute with play calling.
Perhaps nothing hammers that notion home quite like the following. It’s not a major secret UK’s favorite concept is the Inside Zone Read. While the Snell years saw more straight split zones or slams without read elements, the look still received the lion share of the Cats’ offensive calls. Nothing against the play, but it’s as basic as it comes. Every offense in America runs Inside Zone Reads. For many, they help anchor RPO designs and allow mobile QBs opportunities to steal yards on the ground. Still thanks to its grand acceptance and usage across every level of football from pee wee to the pros, it truly is nothing special.
Plenty of BBNers lamented Gran’s affinity for this play. To them, a stuffed run or short gain up the middle was seen as playing chickensh*t football. But despite the lack of allure of this run-of-the-mill run play often presented, it remained UK’s most productive play. If UK’s Big Blue Wall wasn’t so darn good at generating push off of this look, there’s no doubt it would’ve logged less reps.
UK leaned more and more on Inside Zone Reads as time went on. From 2018 to 2020, that concept’s Play Share increased from 18.3% to 33.3% and its Yard Share from 19.3% to 38.6%. The Cats always experienced a positive relationship with this play even despite its lack of sex appeal. This past year alone, Inside Zone Reads combined for a 55.2% Success Rate and 6.06 Y/A (compared to UK’s overall 43.7% clip and 5.28 average). Nonetheless, the already-manilla offense furiously worked either to put folks to sleep or frustrate the hell out of them by displaying less and less variety.
And then there’s the other stuff: the matchup-based pass patterns that failed to scheme dudes open, lack of eye candy and pre-snap motions, the slow pace, and the apparent inability to play both behind the chains and on the scoreboard.
While Gran called games to Stoops’ liking behind a physical ground game, the offense had wandered away from any considerable notion of searching for effective balance. A good portion of that was out of his hands looking at what he had to work with. But then again, being unable to find the right players for his offense fell squarely on Gran’s staff.
It didn’t matter the offense put up some of its best analytics over the last 3 years in SEC play; the one-dimensional Cats had lost its edge offensively and finished 106th or worse in Total Offense in three of his five years calling plays.
The numbers don’t lie. Change was needed. Still, what Gran and Hinshaw helped accomplish at UK shouldn’t be discredited. Let’s remember what the situation was like before they arrived.
Before Gran 2013-2015
Stoops’ first three offenses were handcuffed in more ways than one. First, the roster talent he inherited from the Joker Phillips regime was unequivocally one of the worst in the Power5. UK was slow, small, and not particularly skilled. Sure, there were some future NFLers on the team. But collectively, it was a mess. Second, the fan base expected the rebirth of the Air Raid. Stoops’ brother Bob famously hired away Mike Leach from Hal Mumme’s side and that offensive system has been spreading and rewriting record books ever sense for dozens of programs. The Cats lacked the passers to take to the skies and play makers to bust explosive gains. Either way, ex-Kentucky Air Raid receiver Neal Brown was hired to be his OC. Third, the Cats play in the SEC. It should almost go without saying. Defenses don’t make things any easier on a team trying to find its footing in this conference.
As you might expect, Brown’s first offense didn’t wow anyone. The Cats finished in the triple-digits in points/game and total offense. While moderately balanced, it was clear the passing game buoyed the offense.
Much of the same was true in 2014, but the offense put up better numbers as the Cats overachieved to a 5-7 season. Kentucky’s 26.5 points/game average remains the 2nd-best of the Stoops tenure and significantly influenced UK’s rating in ESPN’s SP+. Despite ranking 103rd in the nation in Yards/Play, the Cats were rated as the 60th-best offense.
When Brown left to take the head coaching job at Troy, Stoops was torn on what direction to take his offense. In his introductory press conference the Youngstown, OH native stated matter-of-factly, “We’re going to have an offense that’s going to whip it around and throw it. But we’ve got to be physical.” The first two seasons may have found more success through the air, but it was clear Stoops wanted to win in the trenches. West Virginia staffer Shannon Dawson eventually was hired to lead UK’s offense.
The Dawson season was weird and certainly frustrating. The Cats started to run the ball better, but the passing game failed to progress. The development of Patrick Towles had stagnated and the Cats entered the offseason with its second consecutive 5-7 record after another collapse in the back-half of their schedule. Dawson guided UK’s offense to its best Total Offense (370.9), Rushing Offense (172.5), and Yard/Play (5.3) in three years, but his chemistry never gelled with his boss.
Now firmly on the hot seat with a 12-24 record entering a crucial year4, Stoops turned to an old colleague to turn things around. Gran and Stoops most recently had been on Jimbo Fisher’s FSU staff when the Seminoles won the national championship in 2012. As a sweetener, Gran brought along Hinshaw with him from Cincinnati. Gran would be the main playcaller and coach the running backs, but Hinshaw would orchestrate the pass game and work with the QBs.
I remember being ho-hum and slightly let down when news of the hiring came out. I mean, Gran’s offense put up pretty good numbers in the American Athletic Conference but he was a relative no name and lacked pizzazz. But the Football Freddies and others in the coaching community were well aware of Gran’s track record. Before coming to Lexington, he had 28 years in the game, 15 of which were in the SEC. A seasoned vet certainly was the opposite extreme to a first-time play caller. Nevertheless with Stoops’ aforementioned toasty seat and the general shortcomings of UK football, I had my skepticism. After all, it was bowl or bust and the Cats historically don’t hold up under pressure.
For the first three seasons, UK’s offense had a literal identity crisis. Being torn, UK had immense trouble discovering what it was good at. While part of that was failing to have offensive talent, the lack of bearings was palpable. Gran was thought to install a more pro-style scheme that still incorporated spread elements. But establishing the run was paramount before he aimed to take the top off of defenses. The Cats entered 2016 with a worthy plan and worthy talent to make it work.
The roster was back to SEC standards; or at least at the level where UK could compete. Drew Barker had lofty expectations as the next homegrown quarterback to lead the Cats to relevance, Boom Williams was establishing himself as a homerun back, Jeff Badet and Garrett Johnson provided UK’s receiving corps with some juice, and future pro defenders Josh Allen, Derrick Baity, Lonnie Johnson Jr, and Mike Edwards played key roles as underclassmen.
While the start was rocky and Stoops’ job came to a boiling point, Gran commanded Kentucky’s best offense of the decade. Though a back injury derailed Barker’s time in UK’s backfield, Kentucky’s offensive drought was saved by an oasis from the desert. Well, College of the Desert to be more precise. JUCO QB Stephen Johnson was never expected to play much. But his passing paired with Williams’ big play ability and the emergence of freshman bowling bowl back Benny Snell Jr soon had the Cats making noise offensively.
Kentucky’s offense put up its best Points/Game (28.4), Total Offense (423.9), Pass Offense (190.8), Yards/Play (6.0), and Yards/Pass (7.7) of the Stoops Era. Despite entering the season without producing a single 1,000 yard rusher the previous nine seasons, two Cats cracked that plateau in Gran’s first year calling plays. And more importantly for Stoops, this offense helped propel the Cats to a bowl game and secure his first winning season as a head coach. It also didn’t hurt this offense out-dueled Heisman winner and reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson in Louisville.
Without doing down the X’s and O’s rabbit hole, UK’s collective offensive speed opened so many doors for big plays. Having one speedster is nice, but three or four are undeniably better. Like Coach Red Beaulieu says in The Waterboy (when talking about national championships), “My ole man used to say ‘the only thing better than a crawfish dinner is five crawfish dinners.’” You wonder why people have had trouble curbing Alabama’s offense full of razzmatazz and lightning the past couple of seasons. They have speed and plenty of it.
Kentucky’s run-first approach often was the kickstarter. UK’s braun and burst run game often forced defenses to dedicate another body in the box, which allowed UK’s speed on the outside opportunities to win downfield. With two fast receivers, UK was able to win versus man and dial up combinations that could threaten deep. Moreover, they had a passer that could make opponent’s pay if they sold out to stop the run. Defenses couldn’t bank on taking one element away without being left vulnerable by the other.
While UK’s offense has had talent within its ranks since, Gran was never able to recapture that effective balance on the field.
While the team was starting to come into form, UK’s offense lost two key speedsters. Badet transferred to Oklahoma due to change in playing style and Williams tried his hand in the NFL draft. Outside of Juice Johnson, there weren’t any reliable big play outlets at Kentucky’s disposal. And yes, I am including Lynn Bowden at this point in time. People forget how raw he was learning a brand new position.
UK signed a few highly-rated receivers in the early years under Stoops. But the only two that consistently played well when a functioning QB was present was Badet and Johnson — both recruited during the Brown years. Obviously, their speed allowed them to pop albeit in limited doses. The role for alpha within UK’s receiving room remained his, but Badet yearned for more opportunities and dipset for Norman.
Stephen Johnson played through noticeable injuries after the first month of the season. But I’m sure he had a few more than he cared to disclosed. While never the most precise passer, he didn’t throw a lot of ducks in 2016. Not being 100% noticeably limited his game and the Cats offense. Either way, he soldiered on.
Deep passing really helped turned the tide for the Cats in 2016. Again, UK’s speed allowed them to create separation and defeat various coverages . But with less burst in 2017, the homerun balls just didn’t come as easy as the year prior. More details in the vid below if you give a damn about that.
Snell became a star as UK’s workhorse. And through Gran’s belief in the run, UK played much smaller and conservatively. The Cats offense remained sturdy but it was lackluster.
Still on the back of Snell, UK’s offense finished with its best rating in ESPN’s SP+ in the Stoops tenure with a 30.8 score. Ironically, this season delivered the lowest yards Rushing Yards/Game (157.9) by about 40 yards than any other season in his time calling plays for Big Blue. The Cats also sported their worst Yards/Run (4.2).
Playing through the run with very little potency offered UK a small margin of error. Meaning if the Cats fell behind the chains or lost the turnover battle, they were screwed. In case you blocked out the bad memories or forgot, UK’s defense wasn’t sound. Despite Stoops’ defensive background and the Cats; collection of talent, UK ended the year with the 80th ranked defense in the SP+ in 2017.
Gran’s had to be conservative to save UK’s defense and keep opponents off the field. While year one under him was certainly more open, year two was the beginning of Gran taking the air out of the ball and grinding games to a halt sometimes both literally and figuratively. Playing old-school is inherently playing stale, but Gran masterfully crafted time killing drives on a handful of occasions. **nostalgic wildcat formation montage**. While it certainly wasn’t pretty, replicating a 7-5 (4-4) record considering the circumstances is impressive despite finishing 106th in the nation in Total Offense (342.7).
Recruiting failures from a few off-seasons further accentuated this newfound conservative approach from UK’s run-first offense. Missing out on potential QB signees Jarren Williams and Mac Jones, in-state receiving talent Rondale Moore, and Lex Bro Jedrick Willis, stung and left UK without much offensive fire power or hope to develop effective balance.
Once again Kentucky provided an opportunity to a JUCO QB. This time it was Garden City Community College passer and Last Chance U featured extra Terry Wilson. Wilson was raw in the pocket but owned the arm strength to replicate 2016’s downfield attack in theory. Plus, his speed added an element that had been lacking in this offense. In addition to Snell’s bruising and plodding, they had a potential gasher around the edge.
Despite those recruiting flubs, 2018 fielded the best complete Kentucky team in the modern era. Led by sack master Josh Allen, UK’s defense briefly held the title for the top defense in the SP+ Ratings before eventually finishing 15th. Snell cemented his legacy as the most prolific back in school history and the team won ten games for the first time in four decades. UK’s offensive line built a sturdy reputation for itself.
Through Snell, the Cats found pretty good volume. UK ranked 37th in both Rushing Offense (196.3) and Yards/Carry (4.8) nationally. After all, he was the face of the offense. It often went as he went. Defenses knew if they could stop him, they could stop Kentucky.
Wilson provided plenty of highlights over UK’s historic campaign with his flash. But as gifted as he was in the open field, he hindered UK’s passing efforts. With limited reps and going from the Jayhawk Conference to the SEC, Wilson displayed hesitancy, a lack of trust in his wideouts, and mediocre downfield accuracy. While accurate short, he wasn’t much for stretching the field despite his adequate arm talent.
Then again, it’s not like the Cats were able to craft capable pass catchers to ease Wilson’s growing pains. Bowden, though a potent playmaker in space, was far from a good route runner or reliable set of hands. As it were, UK’s passing game was often a tunnel operation for him. Bowden commanded just under 30% of UK’s pass targets and finished below the SEC average in Catching Success Rate (48.1%) and Explosive Catch Rate (11.8%). Year over year, the Cats passed for 34 less yards/game and dropped 25 spots nationally in the Yards/Pass rankings.
Gran’s keep-away approach through Snell’s volume ultimately saw the Cats sport an average offensive unit. Despite a bottom10 pass attack and 2nd-worst Points/Play in SEC play, UK finished 64th in the SP+ Ratings. UK finished bottom5 vs. conference opponents in Rushing and Passing Success Rate, Negative Play Rate, and Explosive Pass Rate. UK also sported bottom3 Touchdown and Turnover Rates. It truly is remarkable UK captured ten wins knowing all that.
Despite the regression in points/game and Total Offense for three straight years, Gran’s dissenters weren’t so venomous because the Cats were winning ballgames. But the fact of the matter remained: UK’s offense was trending the wrong way.
Following the program’s most successful season in the modern era wouldn’t be easy. Though the Cats returned a good amount of their offense, bell cow back Benny Snell had departed for the pros. On the other side of the ball, much of the core talent had done the same. But despite the roster turnover, momentum was still behind the Cats as a very workable schedule was laid before them.
Historically, Kentucky football is no stranger to adversity. Usually the more undermanned squad in interconference play, Big Blue is accustomed to getting knocked down and having to recover and respond. Winning hardly is effortless for this program. So when things started to go off the rails over the first month-plus of the season, the optimism of being able to weather the on-field misfortune was quickly waning.
As we know, Wilson busted his knee cap in Week 2 and the Cats had to soldier on with Troy transfer Sawyer Smith. Despite holding the lead with the ball at the start of the 4th quarter at home the following week, the Cats fell to Florida and became Kyle Trask’s first victim during his meteoric rise. Smith himself would wind up banged up with shoulder and wrist ailments. Yet, he fought through the pain. His health prevented serviceable passing, and the Cats sputtered into the bye week with three-straight losses.
For three-plus seasons, UK’s offense was overly predictable and toothless. UK’s recruiting classes filled its roster with some of the best collective talent in recent memory but the potential between the lines was largely going unfulfilled. None more than Lynn Bowden. When the former Youngstown, OH product signed with the Cats, UK Recruiting Coordinator Vince Marrow unabashedly clamored Bowden was the best athlete out of the Buckeye State in decades. Knowing Kentucky’s short term track record with offensive talent, I remained bearish on those claims even when Bowden started delivering game-altering plays. While a dynamic returner, he still struggled to get things done within structure consistently.
Through traditional manners, UK’s offensive brain trust had immense trouble maximizing Bowden’s skill set in its scheme. While he was unquestionably UK’s primary target, his returns were blah and his analytics below the SEC average. Despite the attention, he was predominately inefficient even if he delivered the occasional splash play. UK had no other choice but to go all-in on its most dangerous player.
I won’t go into the details about this offense, as I’ve already done that and its well-documented. You know the crux of it anyways; UK birthed one of the most unique and potent run games in the country. Even with the first four games souring their overall output, the Cats finished top4 in Rushing Offense (263.8) and Yards/Carry (6.0), The Cats weren’t totally consistent during Lynnsanity, but bountiful big plays made up for occasional lags. That linked story really does tell the whole picture. But from Week 7 on — when the Lynnsanity Offense debuted — UK owned the SEC’s best Explosive Play Rate (17.5%), Rush Yards Before Contact average (3.25) and won six of its eight games to close out the year. Bowden became a bonafide star on the way to winning The Paul Hornung Award for the most versatile player in college football.
The Cats finished as the 52nd ranked offense to close out 2019, which shared the highest finish by that metric in Gran’s Kentucky tenure. Also, UK managed to put up its second-best Yards/Play (5.9) under Gran thanks to plenty of long runs.
2019 was unquestionably Gran’s best coaching job. He deviated from the status quo that had been helping the Cats compete and completely reworked his offense on the fly. That kind of boldness and bravery isn’t all that common in the coaching ranks. It’s one thing to tweak a wrinkle ahead of one opponent or reworking everything over the course of an offseason. Creating an offense from scratch during an off-week that goes on to set school rushing records truly is something else. Yet, that showing would be Gran’s last hurrah.
Had the Lynnsanity experiment failed, I’m not so sure Gran would have survived last off-season. Again before Bowden Ball carried the Cats to another bowl birth, the Cats’ offense couldn’t do anything well against conference opponents.
Despite the hope around Terry Wilson, he still was far from an unfinished product as a passer. Yet, the SEC Network’s Roman Harper mistakenly believed Wilson to be a top5 talent within the conference ahead of this fall. In theory if Wilson’s rebab was a total success, he owned the speed and shiftiness to anchor a replication of Lynnsanity and offered a threat throwing the football Bowden simply couldn’t. But as we know, Wilson didn’t get any better commanding UKs offense.
If the notion Wilson would come in and be Bowden, it was soon clear he wasn’t up to the task. Sure his speed still showed up on tape, but the Oklahoman simply couldn’t make defenders miss on Lynn’s level. Over 99 total carries, Wilson has only broken seven tackles. But as a designed runner, he only broke five across his 71 such attempts (7.04%). Since he was easily corralled, Wilson sported a YAC average under 2 yards. FWIW, Bowden finished top10 within the SEC in both metrics in 2019 (35.2%, 3.72).
That paired with his natural tentativeness made UK all the easier to stop for opposing defenses. Wilson remained untrusting in the pocket and noticeably ran the ball with less gumption. The former was later illuminated upon UK’s receivers seemingly incessant failure to provide any value and rise above the moment to rescue Wilson.
Year-over-year, UK put up a worse Passing Success Rate and Explosive Pass Rate despite running more “QB friendly” patterns. The Lynnsanity Offense overly ignored short and YAC oriented designs for the most part. When UK was behind the chains, it often turned to shot plays to flip the field or create a spark, which rarely worked out in Big Blue’s favor.
With the increased difficulty of an all-SEC slate, the pandemic environment, and the natural toll injuries take, Gran’s offense put up it’s worst numbers in a good deal of spots including Points/Game (21.7), Yards/Play (5.0), and SP+ Rating (25.8). Along with 2020 being UK’s first losing season under Gran, the Cats posted its lowest Total Offense figure (311.5) since Joker Phillips was still in charge.
That said, Kentucky surprised me when I peeped at the numbers. Sure the overall stats speak for themselves and decided the fate of UK’s former offensive braintrust. But, the Cats posted their best Points/Play (0.33), TD Rate (3.77%), Turnover Rate (1.97%), Negative Play Rate (7.43%) and Rushing Success Rate (52.2%) vs conference competition in at least three years.
Considering they were the SEC’s most run-happy team for the second consecutive year, it’s nice to know UK tried to hone in on what it does best. But that itself was a microcosm for the complaints against Gran’s play calling. Fearful that the pass game would provide nothing worthwhile, UK’s already predictable scheme became all the more narrow. Again, they hammered away with their favorite run concept with more volume than ever. And while they helped the Cats secure modest gains, they couldn’t keep up in track meets.
Though Gran’s guidance had helped the Cats compete, UK’s offense looked pitiful against all but the very worst the SEC had to offer defensively. The belle of the ball a year ago is now a lone stag shuffling off with its tale between its legs. Any and all momentum this offense had going into the season has evaporated, which makes UK’s vacancy a particularly challenging role to fill.
Where Kentucky’s Offense Goes From Here
Despite returning a veteran passer, the best offensive line in school history, and one of the most efficient rushers in the SEC, Kentucky sported one of the worst offenses in the conference in 2020. While the schedule should allow the Cats to reach a .500 record next fall, much of is known commodities won’t be around, which will make making the right coordinator hire all the more vital if the Cats want to get back to winning.
Barring anything shocking, UK will lose its three best OL, primary receiver, and starting backfield. Stoops already was hard-pressed with the task of replacing Offensive Line Coach John Schlarman in addition to his play caller, RB, and QB coaches. The roster and staff turnover presents Stoops a fine chance at rebooting his offensive and charting its course. Instead of inserting one coach into a functioning operation, the whole shebang needs a complete overhaul, which can facilitate the implementation of a new mentality.
UK will probably continue to field the less-talented unit versus conference opponents. Naturally, Kentucky must hire someone who can generate results with few focal points.
The Air Raid will always be desirable to some BBNers as it allowed the Cats to capture magic and compete in the late 90’s. But looking at UK’s current state of the passing game and Mike Leach’s struggles in Starkville, it doesn’t make any sense for Stoops to explore that extreme at this point in time.
I’ve seen some of the names attached to the openings, and none wow me to be honest. Most are retreads or lazy associations to Stoops based on where they are from. Whether those names will be brought in for interviews remains to be seen. That said, there are a few styles of play that caught my eye that UK could afford to explore.
Coastal Carolina, Howard/Hawaii, and Missouri have interesting M.O.s that allow them to find advantages despite poor recruiting class rankings. Though they each do it differently, each relies heavily on spread run elements.
On the way to capturing nationwide zeal as the Little Engine that Could, Coastal Carolina primarily rocks a triple option scheme. But rather than busting out the flex or wishbone like a service academy, they operate mostly from the pistol or gun. Aiming to attack the edge with both zone/gap options, the Chanticleers do a fantastic job of keep defenses off balance with various motions, actions, and run wrinkles. Entering this weekend, ESPN’s SP+ rates them as a top15 offense. The Chanticleers own a top15 Yards/Pass (8.8) and Top26 Yards/Carry (5.1) entering this weekend.
The pushback for this course is obvious. Jamey Chadwell is only in his 3rd year as a head coach with 2020 being his only winning campaign. And that said, fat chance he’s bailing for a P5 coordinator job after a season like this year’s. Plus, Stoops seemingly wants to deploy a style that is known to work. Perhaps unfair, one of his parting shots on Gran/Hinshaw was that their stuff seemed to work in the AAC but not the SEC. Plucking an offense from a non-power5 conference could easily backfire. Still, QB Coach and Co-OC Willy Korn could be the man to target due to his youth and aggression. In addition to commanding the Big South’s most productive offense the last two years, Korn buys into the new wave of thinking of being more willing to risk it on 4th downs. Coastal Carolina has been top35 in 4th down tries the past two seasons and has been top8 in conversion rate both years. The option style paired with that aggression could help reinvigorate UK’s ground game that’s overly become muted and reserved.
The Howard Bison football program hardly receives any attention. But that’s where Brennan Marion first unleashed the “GoGo Offense”. Stylings of this scheme are not wide known. In fact, even I was unaware it was a full-fledged scheme. UK and Ole Miss had used a few sets from this offense in 2019 but they simply read a gadget wrinkles to me. For The Win’s Steven Ruiz penned an excellent piece on Marion and his offense here, but the skinny is it allows a spread formation team the ability to crush teams between the tackles. Two-back sets are nothing new. First evolving from basic I-Formations to shotgun Pony Sets, the GoGo takes it one step further. Instead of aligning a back on each side of the QB, this scheme tells both backs to be on the same side. It looks as whacky, and the odd alignment certainly messes with defenses responsible for identifying run paths. And while it looks like a spread offense, don’t you dare tell that to its creator.
Knowing what we know about Stoops and UK’s roster, that should definitely peak interest. But like Chadwell’s Chanticleers, the GoGo is yet to have a sustained run of success. After a year of OC’ing at Howard, Marion gave it a go at William & Mary and added more wrinkles including incorporating more RPOs and aligning TEs in diagonal stances. Marion is currently on his old Arizona State boss Todd Graham’s Hawaii’s staff where he was looking to bring the offense into the Group-of-Five. Due to COVID, we have yet to see if the offense can continue to impress. With its limited sample, pursuing that style might scare Stoops away even if it presents a lot of positives.
Obviously since they helped the Cats finish below .500 for the first time in five years, Missouri’s offensive style should have Stoops’ attention. Eli Drinkwitz himself has a very small shelf live, but his results are hard to question. Despite entering 2020 with one of the two SEC offenses rated in the triple-digits in the eyes of ESPN’s SP+, the Tigers don’t make things easy on opposing defenses. Either through long, sustained drives or chunk plays, Missouri’s offense has been effective.
Point blank: this offense is fun and creative. Since I know this offense much better than the others since I chart its every snap, Missouri’s scheme is rooted in outside zone off-tackles and tackle counter read options - natural compliments to one another in the run game. Off-tackles aim to get a step and beat the defense around the edge. Tackle counters look to bash fronts inside if they start to eye the outside. In addition to those staples, Missouri frequently unleashes a bevy of motions. Only Alabama uses more pre-snap motion and Orbit motion within the SEC. Plus, Mizzou is top4 within the conference in Jet motion usage. Sometimes as simple eye candy and others serving a purpose, Missouri has called triple options from gap/zone schemes, RPO outlets, perimeter screens, and its fair share of trick plays. While sporting an average Yards/Play (5.95) and Success Rate (45.4%) by this year’s SEC standards, Missouri is top5 within the conference in terms of Total Offense (436) and percentage of plays that gain at least 15 yards (10.1%). For what it’s worth the latter was better than any Gran Era UK offense.
Adopting a similar scheme arch-rival Louisville deploys would be interesting. Scott Satterfield was Drinkwitz boss at Appalachian State before he commanded the Cards. You can see the similarities between the two offenses and both offer avenues towards effective balance. The caveat becomes who exactly can Stoops target to implement this philosophy. Drinkwitz calls his own plays and doesn’t officially have an offensive coordinator. Stealing Satterfield’s play caller/O-Line coach could be the way to go. Dwayne Ledford has Louisville as one of the most potent units in the ACC while overseeing the aforementioned run-balanced scheme. Looking at Satterfield’s staff from the outside, Lexington could offer Ledford a chance to move up while not being a totally new environment. Still, it’s not common to make that kind of leap. It’s not like he’s a receivers’ coach or something.
Hiring a play caller akin to Gran is also possible. Maintaining the bread-and-butter inside zone looks with pro-based patterns could be the way to go even if it might be met with some yawns. There’s a chance Stoops feels that style is sustainable and that it just needs a new captain. Still will all the potential to evolve his offense, I’d like to think he would be a little bold. Not to say he should make a total splash hire, but this program could use a bit of energy after face-planting after entering the year with considerable expectations. Names like Tim Beck and Mike Bobo should excite exactly zero 16 and 17-year olds who are thinking on where to play their college ball. Beck coached NC State to a 103 ranking in last year’s SP+ and Bobo steered South Carolina’s 2020 offense to the worst Success Rate in the conference.
Other possible spread guys like Cale Gundy and Garrett Riley look fine on paper as candidates. But looking at the current roster construction, UK cannot take a whole lot of time transitioning to a new scheme. Stoops’ job could be fine with another year on the skids, but all parties involved would rather the Cats get back to winning right away. Trying to be the Oklahoma in the SEC certainly has upside.
Empty formations, various counters, and mesh designs have done them well. But the Sooners also have far superior talent to make it all work. In case you were unaware, they’ve owned four of the five most efficient individual passing seasons the last decade.
That aura is tantalizing, but it’s probably not obtainable by the BBN. After all, Gundy has never out-right called plays despite his tenure and title. Riley, Lincoln’s baby brother, only has this current season under his belt dishing out calls. Nonetheless, he has ties to Drinkwitz and could be UK’s in running a scheme like Missouri’s. Before becoming Southern Methodists’ OC, he was Drinkwitz RB coach at App State.
Ex-Mississippi State HC and current Oregon OC Joe Moorhead would also be an intriguing option for Stoops. Moorhead never quite gelled in Starkville but never lost his reputation as an offensive innovator. Like the majority of the avenues UK should explore, Moorhead gets creative when turning towards the ground particularly incorporating RPOs. At Miss State, it wasn’t just Inside Zone Reads. Moorhead also featured Power Reads, Power Veers, Counter Reads, Toss Reads, Bash Reads, and Draws and exhibited excellent balance between his core run plays. Quick flats or slide routes underneath the formation to tight ends or slot receivers often were tagged for easy outlets to space. While bubble screen outlets were also seen, the variety of outlets provided his passers with easy completions to space when ahead of the chains. When in the mood to dropback, Moorhead’s passing game very much resembled Bruce Arians of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. For the laymen, it’s vertical in nature and incorporates a mix of Flood, Drive and Shallow wrinkles across patterns.
Results were mixed thanks to inheriting an iffy passing game. But Moorhead’s two offenses still topped Gran’s in 2018 and 2019 in SEC play in overall Success Rate and Explosive Play Rate. In fact, the Bulldogs were top3 in the latter during his last season only trailing Alabama and LSU. Within the conference, UK has been a top4 RPO team by usage each of the last three seasons. So veering into that kind of every down offense wouldn’t be a major change. Plus I should mention, no SEC offense currently boasts a preferable Success Rate or Y/A on RPO plays as the UK’s 56.9% clip or 6.64 average. In that respect, the Cats should be able to hit the ground running. But the rub, once again, will be how he will get the pass game up to snuff. His vertical patterns often took a beat longer to develop and both of his offenses had trouble curbing havoc and pressure plays. And while UK’s OLine has built a great run blocking reputation, sound pass setters they are not.
While him jumping ship so soon at a job like Oregon doesn’t seem likely, Moorhead could be enticed in theory returning to the glamor of the SEC. Turning the Cats offense around is certainly a more challenging job than guiding the Ducks through the Pac12 considering Oregon obtains more talent. Right now the Ducks are a top20 offense in the eyes of the SP+, top30 Points/Game and Pass Yards/Game, and Top40 in Rush Yards/Game. Oregon WR coach and Pass Coordinator Bryan McClendon, South Carolina’s play caller, could also be explored if Moorhead is content kicking it in Eugene for awhile. Whomever gets the nods must work with the little talent UK’s offense will bring back.
UK will return one of the most overlooked stars in the SEC. Chris Rodriguez is the real deal and has been for over a year. While finishing with the best YAC average and Broken Tackle Rate and the 2nd-best Rushing Success Rate and First Down+TD Rate in SEC play last year, I was amazed at the lack of fanfare with which he entered the season. Perhaps most thought his stellar stats were just residue of the Lynnsanity offense. But, that simply wasn’t the case. CRod will likely finish as the SEC’s champ in Yards/Carry, YAC average, Success Rate, and First Down+Touchdown Rate.
Obviously, the next play caller should be someone that can maximize his talents. While he put up those fantastic efficiency figures and the SEC’s 3rd-best EPA/play among conference backs, UK’s offense failed to do much else around him. UK’s other ball carriers were not as valuable with their touches. Since he’s great after contact, he doesn’t necessarily need a RB-friendly scheme. But if we’re being honest, it’s a helluva lot easier to consistently run the ball well without mess in your path. Replacing the majority of the line will be a challenge, but not an aspect that will totally doom the Cats.
While the run game will remain in the spotlight at least in the short term, the person who Stoops ultimately hires must develop a competent pass game. It doesn’t have to be special, but it certainly needs to be more consistent than what the Cats had previously been doing. And while instant gratification on that front likely won’t come, that has to be the goal. UK cannot expect to hang with many SEC offenses throwing for less than 150 yards/game, which is what has happened the last three years.
Beau Allen or Joey Gatewood are two very different passers. Allen is more “arm” and Gatewood more “legs”. But neither looked great in their spot snaps in 2020. We saw how Gran and Hinshaw went down in flames when their offense became frustratingly one-dimensional due to UK’s inability to find a quality passer. One of them has to work out or I am not sure how the rest of the Stoops Era materializes.
UK has some youngsters that could offer hope as outlets. but I remain bearish on that front. Kentucky is desperate for playmakers and team speed. Schematics alone will not fix the ailments around this offense. As nice a back as Rodriguez is, UK showed it needs more than a great back and imposing line in order to take care of business against SEC foes.
We still don’t know which coordinator Stoops will swipe right on. Gorgeous resume or not, losing will make any pretty profile ugly. Not too much longer before we see who owns the glimmer of Stoops’ eye.