Kentucky has yet to snap a football in a 2015 game, but our training camp observations lead us to believe Mark Stoops made a pair of shrewd offseason coaching moves.
After the 2014 season, Kentucky's third-year head coach faced a pair of open staff slots. Offensive coordinator Neal Brown departed to become Troy's head coach. Safeties/special teams coach Craig Naivar joined former Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman at Houston.
It's one thing to assemble a new staff. Bringing new assistants into a room with an already-established collection of co-workers is quite another. Chemistry issues must be considered. Direction can be changed or preserved.
On offense, Stoops opted for preservation with a subtle twist, wooing offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson from West Virginia. On defense, however, the head coach decided to change fields. Instead of employing a new safeties/special teams coach, he hired a defensive ends/outside linebackers coach in Andy Buh and split the special teams duties among the entire staff.
Early returns say both moves will pay dividends.
Start with Dawson, he of the "Air Raid" pedigree. Many new OCs want to bring in "their" guys to run "their" shows, but Dawson's new show is in keeping with Brown's old show — a prime reason he was hired in the first place — which allowed Stoops to retain the remaining offensive staff, and by all accounts the transition has been seamless.
"Quite honestly, I think I hit a home run with these offensive staff guys, and it's been fairly easy," Dawson said Friday. "I think it's just the mesh of personalities was fairly easy for whatever reason. So it's a good meeting room and those guys have made my job easier."
Continuity can't be overrated. Think back to Bill Curry's unhappy tenure (1990-96) as UK's head coach when offensive schemes and coaches changed nearly year-to-year, from Tommy Bowden's short-passing game to Rick Rhoades' I-Bone option attack to Elliot Uzelac's two tight-end/one-back sets. Ultimately, the final change involved Curry, who was out of a job.
On defense, Stoops charted a slight reconfiguration. With his scheme tilting more to a 3-4 look instead of the traditional 4-3, the head coach decided his defensive end/outside linebackers needed special attention. That position isn't necessarily the head coach's area of expertise. Stoops cut his teeth coaching defensive backs so he decided to help coach the defensive backs and hire Buh, once Stanford's defensive coordinator, to concentrate on the ends and outside backers.
That has freed up defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh to hone in on his three inside guys while Buh tutors the two outside guys. "Coach Buh just gives more attention to detail," said senior defensive end Jabari Johnson.
Defensive end is the position where Kentucky lost its two best defensive players in Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith, both NFL draft picks. Dupree was taken in the first round; Smith in the fourth. While Smith primarily played with his hand on the ground, Dupree operated as a true hybrid, sometimes on the line, sometimes off. Neither will be easily replaced.
UK's defensive backs may not have the exceptional talent of a Dupree, but the secondary is deeper, longer and more athletic than in recent memory. Working alongside cornerbacks coach Derrick Ansley, Stoops has added attitude to the proceedings. During practice, he's chirping at defensive backs and receivers.
"I tell them, 'I'm an offensive guy when they score. Who do you think comes up with those plays?'" joked Stoops.
We'll see how the new special teams approach of shared responsibility works. Stoops fiercely defended Naivar last season, but the Cats' special teams were often too cute in 2014, forfeiting solid play in the quest for the big play. Look for improvement in 2015.
And if Kentucky improves from 5-7 to a bowl team, a couple of smart Stoops hires will have played an important role.