By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
We are about a month away from the start of the UK football season — August 31st to be exact — and every Big Blue Fan is anxiously waiting to see what the Wildcats will look like in 2019.
One thing is for sure, Kentucky should have a lot of weapons on offense. First off would be Lynn Bowden, a do-everything wide receiver who has recently be named to the Paul Hornung Award Watchlist for the most versatile college player and to the Fred Biletnikoff Award Watchlist given to the best wide receiver in college football.
But Bowden is not the only weapon available to offensive coordinator Eddie Gran. He also has a very solid group of wide receivers that includes senior Ahmad Wagner, juniors Isaiah Epps and Josh Ali along with sophomores Allen Dailey and Clevan Thomas and the star of the spring game, redshirt freshman Bryce Oliver. Gran will also have a large group of redshirt freshmen and true freshmen to choose from.
Gran has a great trio of running backs consisting of what should be one of the best backs in the SEC in junior AJ Rose plus redshirt freshmen Kavoisey Smoke and Chris Rodriguez. In addition to those three Gran could also opt to situationally use a talented true freshman newcomer in speed back Travis Tisdale.
Throw in a couple of very good tight ends in Justin Rigg and Brendan Bates along with a very talented offensive line anchored by Logan Stenberg, Landon Young and Drake Jackson and you have the makings of an exceptional offense.
And that conversation didn’t even include Terry Wilson, who I believe will be one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC by the end of the season.
Now, with all those options I still don’t think any of those players will be the most important person on the field. In fact I think the most valuable offensive weapon UK will have next season will be none other than Eddie Gran. That’s right. The Eddie Gran that many UK fans love to hate. You know, the Eddie Gran that some fans believe doesn’t know how to call an offense that does anything other than run the ball. And then run the ball some more.
But the facts don’t bear that out. In fact, before Eddie Gran came to Kentucky, his offenses at Cincinnati consistently ranked in the top 50 in the country and improved each year he was there. His offense in 2015, his last with the Bearcats, ranked 4th in the country in passing averaging 373 yards per game and his total offense ranked 5th overall at over 500 yards per game. So don’t tell me Eddie Gran doesn’t know how to run an offense that can move the ball — either on the ground or through the air.
Unfortunately for Eddie Gran, and co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw, Mark Stoops recipe for winning 10 games last year didn’t include throwing the ball all over the field.
In fact here’s what Hinshaw said recently about the offense last season, “We have a great coach in Mark Stoops who understands the game and managing the game. A lot of times on the headset (last year) you would hear (from Stoops), ‘Don’t screw this up.’ We have the defensive player of the year and we knew what we had to do and that was the recipe for winning 10 games and we are going to find the recipe this year.”
It appears that recipe might include cranking up the offense a little more. Hinshaw said recently that the intent of the coaching staff — Stoops, Gran and Hinshaw — was to get the offense going. Hinshaw said, ”Last year we were more about running the ball. We had a first year quarterback with Terry Wilson and he only threw about 20 times a game. We are going to have to increase that this year to 35 to 40 times a game.”
So it seems like when the co-offensive coordinator speaks, everyone listens and this year it seems like the offensive coaching staff is saying, “crank up that offense.”
Mark Stoops also hinted at having a better offense this season when he talked at SEC Media Days about Terry Wilson and his improvement at quarterback, about his three running backs and continuing to have a solid running game but he also mentioned having better talent at wide receiver around his quarterback and how much that will help the offense improve.
Looking at that offensive lineup one has to believe that the Wildcats will have the capability to put up a lot of yards and a lot of points and it seems to me that if Eddie Gran chooses to re-create the same type of number generating offense he had at Cincinnati, he has the players to do it. The question is not can the offense be much, much better this year with Eddie Gran calling more pass plays — and I think it will be — but can the offense be so much better that they can carry the defense for the first of the season or longer?
Only time will tell but the good news is the first game matchup against Toledo — a team that ranked 84th in defense last year — should give the UK offense an opportunity to test out its new found freedom. The bad news is that Toledo runs a spread offense and had the 9th best offense in the country last year averaging over 40 points per game. If the Kentucky secondary struggles to cover Toledo’s effective passing game it may require the UK offense to score 50 points or more to win.
Something tells me in that first game Mark Stoops will ask his offensive coordinators to once again slow the game down, run the ball and run the clock. Running the ball and keeping it away from the other team’s offense can sometimes be an effective defensive strategy. It worked well last year.
But don’t count out the offense for the entire season. It seems like with all those weapons that this year’s Wildcats will look more like a Hal Mumme offense than a Bill Curry one. And that is good news for Kentucky fans everywhere.