It’s hard to tell just how serious Eddie Gran is about ripping the wildcat formation out of the Kentucky playbook this season.
After the win over Eastern Kentucky, in which the Cats made two attempts at that package that went for a combined minus-2 yards, the offensive coordinator said: “We might not be a wildcat team. We might not run wildcat ever again. Sometimes it’s good for you in a year. Sometimes it’s not.”
Just two days later, Kentucky’s head coach still seemed a little smitten with the direct-snap formation and its potential this season behind running back Benny Snell.
“I get people’s frustration with it, but again, I don’t want anybody to forget the real big plays we got out of that over the years,” Mark Stoops said of the wildcat on his weekly call-in show Monday night. “We’ll continue to work all options.”
On that show, the UK coach issued a gentle reminder to fans about just how much benefit the Cats have gotten from the wildcat package, especially late last season behind Snell.
“Shoot, it’s hard to count how many big plays we’ve gotten off that last year,” he said. “That was a big portion of how we got to win so many games.”
Stoops sees it from a defensive coordinator’s perspective. He sees how difficult it can be to game plan against.
“The way we can formation people so many different ways,” he said of the way the package taxes defenses. “They have so many gaps to try and cover, it makes it difficult.
“If you’re blitzing and want to do some unconventional ways to try and stop it, that leads to real big plays by us sometimes. It depends on how they’re defending it, what we’re doing.”
The Wildcats’ wildcat package didn’t make a grand debut this season.
On the second play of the opener at Southern Miss, the direct snap to Snell on second-and-2 sailed over his head as he waited for a teammate on the near sideline to motion across.
It was a botched snap (there are different snap counts for the wildcat than standard snaps) on that play that caused the UK offensive coordinators to go to a more base offense for the rest of the game.
That was far from perfect, either. The next direct snap of the game to Snell turned into a fumble near the goal line after the sophomore running back bounced off left guard Logan Stenberg.
On the third wildcat play against the Golden Eagles, there was another high snap, which Snell snatched and turned into an unlikely 1-yard gain. The Cats lined up in it again soon after, which led to an offensive line false start.
“In game one, it was a combination of issues: the backs maybe not letting the smoke clear and there are some plays there — just being more patient — and sometimes it was blocking,” Stoops said. “It’s a combination of all of it.”
While admitting he might have been a little stubborn using the wildcat, Gran said a week ago that some of the plays were dangerously close to turning into huge gains for Kentucky.
“Couple of those were 12 yards and if he breaks a tackle it’s going to be a house call,” Gran said.
Against Southern Miss, UK got off 11 plays out of the wildcat package — there were a few more negated by penalties on one team or another — and those 11 plays went for 32 total yards.
But only two of those wildcat plays went for negative yardage: the Snell high snap and a third-and-inches when running back Sihiem King was pushed backward for minus-1 yard.
Against Eastern Kentucky last week, UK went to that package twice early for a combined minus-2 yards, and then the Cats abandoned it.
In two games this season, the Cats have run the wildcat 13 times for 30 yards (2.3 yards per carry). The 61 other run plays not run out of the direct snap formation have gone for 255 yards (4.2).
On his radio show, Stoops said he thinks of the direct snap feature as a variation on the basic power run play, noting that sometimes those go for 2 yards, then 2 more yards before one breaks off for a 10-yard gain.
The wildcat has been featured prominently against South Carolina (2-0) in the Cats’ three straight wins over the Gamecocks.
It helped UK start the run of success against them in 2014 when Jojo Kemp dominated in the direct snap and finished the game with 17 carries for 131 yards and three touchdowns.
It was absent from the Cats’ game plan in 2015, but made a return for one key play last season when Snell took a direct snap and put UK ahead for good with a 1-yard touchdown run with 10:21 left in the game.
So maybe Kentucky is done with the wildcat.
Maybe it’s not.
But Stoops isn’t ready to rule it out quite yet, especially if that means opponents have to prepare for it.
For its part, South Carolina feels better prepared to stop the Cats’ ground game this season — no matter what the formation — than it was last season when UK gashed the Gamecocks for 216 yards.
That number included an 11-play (all runs), 65-yard drive that ate up nearly five minutes of clock. “They just bled us out in the fourth quarter,” Gamecocks Coach Will Muschamp recalled on Tuesday.
The coach thinks that’s less likely to happen this time around.
“We’re much better fundamentally up front, hand placement, pad level, a lot of those things,” Muschamp said. “Fundamentally, we needed improvement and I think we have improved. We’re playing blocks much better. I think we’re a stronger front seven than we were a year ago. We got pushed around last year.”
Herald-Leader sports columnist John Clay contributed to this report
Kentucky at South Carolina
7:30 p.m. Saturday (SEC)