It sounded too good to be true when Eddie Gran said it.
“What’s great about this system: you’re able to do so many things exceptionally well in the pass game and in the run game,” the offensive coordinator promised on the day Kentucky announced his hiring.
Both Gran and Darin Hinshaw, whom Gran brought with him from Cincinnati, extolled the virtues of their versatile, flexible offense that they could mold to fit any personnel.
Little did Kentucky’s two new coaches know they’d have to revisit that offensive plan over and over again, not just throughout the season, but even in the middle of games.
“I don’t know how it occurred, it just occurred,” Gran said recently when asked about the evolution of Kentucky’s offense. “When we went into this thing, we thought it was going to be a lot different.”
When they went into this thing, the offense looked like it could be pass happy behind quarterback Drew Barker and an arsenal of receivers. In the season opener, the coaches had a game plan that was split down the middle: 25 passes, 25 runs.
That was the last time it was a 50-50 split for Kentucky, which slowly shape shifted into a power-run team that is No. 16 in the nation rushing the ball this season, averaging 241.3 yards a game.
“When Drew went down and Stephen (Johnson) became our quarterback, and we had to re-evaluate, all of our coaches did a great job of what will the recipe be for us to score points? What will the recipe be for us to win games?” Gran recalled as UK prepared this month for the TaxSlayer Bowl.
Against Southeastern Conference opponents this season, 66.5 percent of the Cats’ plays were runs. That number was even larger against South Carolina and Missouri, when UK ran it more than 71 percent of the game.
So much of that shift to the run game was to get the ball to playmakers like running back Boom Williams and emerging freshman Benny Snell, who didn’t even get a carry until the third game of the season.
“We talked about the right recipe for both sides of the ball to be successful,” head coach Mark Stoops explained. “We kind of worked our way through that early on.”
The running backs took some of the pressure off Johnson, who was still wading into the offense and figuring out the speed of the SEC.
“Stephen was still coming along, but we didn’t think he was ready yet,” Hinshaw said. “He had to be thrown in the fire.”
So coaches turned down the heat, bringing the wildcat package into play. It was something that they’d used a lot in the red zone while at Cincinnati. It was something that Hinshaw had used on the staff at Tennessee.
But it wasn’t exactly a part of the game plan at Kentucky early on.
Want proof? “This spring we didn’t practice one snap of wildcat,” Hinshaw said on Thursday, smiling.
Early in Johnson’s time at quarterback, UK waded in with some wildcat, but it wasn’t until the Alabama game that the Cats started pondering ways to use it all over the field, not just near the goal line, Hinshaw said.
“That’s when we said, ‘You know what? We should do this a little more often and take some of the pressure off the quarterback, too. It’s going to make defenses prepare for more,’” Hinshaw continued.
“That’s how the evolution happened, where we are right now. A lot of it is the same as what we had in the beginning, just with different window dressings and it looks a little different.”
A well-timed bye week helped bring the wildcat package and UK’s other power-running packages to life. The Cats’ offensive line was starting to show the coaches that it could run block well and that there was some real depth there.
The coaches huddled together and Stoops offered different running formations that had given him fits as a defensive coordinator.
“We hit the off week perfect where we actually were able to add a lot,” Gran said of the week before the Mississippi State game. “And I think that really helped a lot with all of the motions and some of the trick plays and just to keep people off balance.”
The Cats added new wrinkles each week to the run game and then continued adding to the pass game as Johnson became more comfortable.
The quarterback’s calm, unassuming disposition helped make the transition easier, Gran said.
“Whether you rip his tail or you try to give him a high-five and hug him, he just has the same demeanor,” the offensive coordinator said. “No matter what we did, whether we pulled back or went ahead with it, he was all in.”
For the most part, Kentucky’s offensive players were all in, too.
Of course there were players, especially some wide receivers who came to UK under the promise of an Air Raid, who struggled with the change of direction at first.
“Let’s be honest, you’ve got receivers who come here and were stars in high school, caught 50-60 balls,” tight ends coach Vince Marrow said. “But with anything, you try it out and if it works, then OK, we’re winning. We’re winning.”
When the Cats started beating some SEC teams, even the skeptics seemed to fall in line.
“I’m telling you, they have bought in,” Marrow said with a sly smile. “Now, receivers are going to be divas, but for the most part, they’ve bought in.”
It’s been an impressive transition all around, Stoops said. And the benefits have been important for both sides of the ball.
“We all like the way that we were playing and it helps us across the board,” he said. “It helps us with our team as we move forward, being physical, being able to run the ball and being able to defend the run. It helps your football team. It’s been a good change.”
Kentucky vs. Georgia Tech
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.
Records: Kentucky 7-5, Georgia Tech 8-4