By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
Springtime in Kentucky can mean only one thing for UK Football fans. The kickoff of the upcoming season. Spring practices, new players to evaluate, discussions about which players to watch in the Fall. And always more discussion about the coaches, their schemes and especially about Mark Stoops and his overall football philosophy.
For those that are new to the Bluegrass or don’t follow UK Football that closely here is the first thing you need to know. Mark Stoops is a defensive minded coach. A person doesn’t need to watch much film of the University of Kentucky Football Team to figure that out. His defenses are linebacker-heavy with long, athletic guys playing in the secondary. He also likes big, agile players at nose guard and tackle to clog the middle and prefers what he calls “twitchy” guys playing on the ends as pass rush specialists and good pass coverage players. So make no mistake that Mark Stoops knows defense.
In fact even when Stoops teams are on offense they are still playing defense. Here’s what I mean.
Kentucky teams under Coach Stoops have performed the best when they have used an offensive scheme that is run-heavy; an offense that thrives on using a large dose of run in the run-pass option play. Stoops prefers big backs — like all-time leading rusher Benny Snell at 225 pounds — that can pound the ball into the opposing defense, wear down the defensive line and use up time on the clock which allows Stoop’s defense to rest on the sideline.
But can he continue that “defensive” offense into the near future? With a couple of experienced quarterbacks in Terry Wilson and Gunnar Hoak (assuming he stays at UK) along with redshirt freshman Walker Wood and several very capable running backs in AJ Rose, Kavoisey Smoke and Chris Rodriguez it would appear that the Wildcats have some of the tools needed to have a very potent offense. Adding freshman phenom Travis Tisdale as a speed burner in the backfield only makes the overall group look more inviting. Throw in Lynn Bowden — a great player in his own right at wide receiver — along with a few more guys like Allen Dailey, Isaiah Epps or Tavin Richardson to step up at that position would be an added bonus.
The offensive line should be talented as well although somewhat limited in total game experience. Losing Bunchy Stallings and George Asafo-Adjei hurts but with Landon Young returning from a season ending injury and experienced players in Logan Stenberg, Drake Jackson, Luke Fortner, Darian Kinnard, Mason Wolfe and Nassir Watkins offensive line coach John Schlarman should still have a lot to work with.
So knowing that Mark Stoops is heading into the Fall with a defensive lineup that is high on talent but is also short on experience in the secondary is it time for the offense to shine?
According to Offensive Coordinator Eddie Gran the answer is a resounding yes! Here’s what he had to say about the offensive philosophy under Mark Stoops and how it changes from year to year. Gran said, “Last year we had a first-year quarterback and a great defense. So our job on offense was not to screw it up,” said offensive coordinator Eddie Gran. “Now we’ve got to do our part. We’ve got to be more explosive. We’re going to open it up a little more.”
You can take that for what it’s worth. If UK is going to win at the same level or better than the 2018 season the offense is going to have to step up significantly. Eddie Gran believes they can. He feels good about the offense and said this about what he thinks the offense can bring to the table in 2019.
“It gets me excited because I think you’re going to have a quarterback that just won 10 games,” Gran said. “He’s going to be throwing the ball better. We’re going to be better at receiver. I think you’re going to see a more explosive offense with us throwing it maybe a little bit more to help our defense out. They’re losing a ton of folks. We need to score more points. I think it’ll be fun this spring to really kind of go through that and be able to take more shots and be able to throw it down the field. Maybe even be a little bit more uptempo and kind of mess with some stuff this spring.”
That should be good news to those fans that have been clamoring for more offense but just a word of warning. Don’t jump too far ahead in thinking Mark Stoops has become a head coach that will rely on the offense to win games.
Stoops will continue to lean on hard nosed football that is technically sound on both sides of the ball. He said about next season, “I just know what our foundation is solid,” said Stoops. “There are a lot of tough teams in this league. And we are one of them.”
That alone should tell fans that the offense needs to step up next season, and I think it will, but any games UK wins next year will be won the same way they amassed ten wins last season – the hard way. Physically dominating the other team at the line of scrimmage. After all, since he hails from Youngstown, Ohio it’s the only way Mark Stoops knows how to play the game.