Like seeing your former significant other across the bar with someone new, it’s guaranteed to be a little bit awkward.
But Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops downplayed any emotional element to former Cats offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson holding the same position on the opposing sideline of UK’s season-opening opponent on Saturday.
There won’t be a big dramatic show with Dawson across the field coaching Southern Miss on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium.
“I don’t have any emotions with facing him at all,” Stoops said on Monday. “I have respect for Shannon Dawson or I wouldn’t have hired him. We had as good a split as you can have. He was a professional. He handled it the right way. I certainly tried to handle it the very best I could.”
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If Dawson was wounded or bitter following being fired after one season as Kentucky’s offensive coordinator, he didn’t show it on Monday when asked about going back to the Bluegrass.
“It’s fine,” he said. “It’s another game to me. I treat them all the same.”
That’s only partially true for coaches on both sidelines.
There’s a familiarity with personnel for Dawson. And Stoops, along with defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot, understand the ins and outs of Dawson’s scheme well. Dawson faced many of UK’s defenders that were on the scout team last year, too.
Is there an edge to facing a foe so familiar? Eliot didn’t think so.
“I think our advantage is the same as their advantage,” UK’s defensive coordinator said. “I think I know him, but he knows me, so I don’t think it’s one way or another.”
For UK’s part, Stoops and Eliot said they’ve gone back and watched not only Southern Miss’s personnel, but also the Cats’ offense from last season under Dawson.
It’s going to cause some problems, Stoops said.
“You guys have seen our offense move at times and I’ve seen it move at times so he certainly can get you off balance, especially with some of the talent he has around him,” Stoops said of Dawson’s new offense, which returns a quarterback who threw for 4,476 yards and 38 touchdowns (with just 12 interceptions).
Behind Nick Mullens, who completed 63.5 percent of his passes last season, running back Ito Smith is back with his 1,128 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.
A season ago, the Golden Eagles’ offense was potent and quick striking, scoring 50-plus points five different times and at least 30 points in each win.
Some 53 percent of Southern Miss’s 38 touchdowns took less than two minutes to score.
In this whole strange saga, something that was difficult for Stoops was seeing just how many times UK’s offense got close under Dawson but couldn’t finish.
“It’s always unique going back and watching yourself, seeing the things that you did well,” Stoops said. “As I mentioned earlier, the reason I hired Coach Dawson — there are some very good plays there.
“It’s hard to see the near misses, because we looked very good at times and moved the ball exceptionally at times. We had good plays called and designed. Sometimes you’re just fractions off.”
But it doesn’t mean there’s any animosity, at least on Stoops’ part.
The Kentucky coach said he has not talked to Dawson since they parted ways in December, but he’s not opposed to hanging out with the coach, whom he called a “good guy” and a “good person.”
“I’m sure some day we’ll run into each other on the road recruiting or at a coaches’ convention or something and sit down and have a beer and talk,” Stoops said. “So, I don’t think there’s any big animosity either way.”
Depth chart notes
There are five true freshmen on Kentucky’s two-deep depth chart, including middle linebacker Kash Daniel and cornerbacks Jordan Griffin and Davonte Robinson, who are listed behind starter Derrick Baity.
On the offensive side of the ball, Lafayette’s Landon Young is listed at the No. 2 spot behind Cole Mosier at left tackle. Punter Grant McKinniss is listed as an “OR” for the starting punter job with Bryan Kirshe.
“Some of the guys that we have listed on the depth chart there, you could see or you may not,” Stoops said. “We will see how it goes. With the players that are on the two-deep depth chart, we anticipate needing them at some point.”
There were some specific true freshmen that Stoops said he believes will play this season even though their names weren’t on the two deep like tight end Justin Rigg, running back Benny Snell and defensive end T.J. Carter. Others like 6-foot-6 junior college wide out Kayaune Ross and redshirt defensive tackle Calvin Taylor certainly will play, too.
As for a player like Daniel, Stoops anticipates seeing the Mr. Kentucky Football a lot on special teams and in the rotation at middle linebacker. “He’s been everything that we thought he would be: He’s passionate, he’s hungry. For a freshman, he has great attention to detail.”
▪ There are a couple of interesting “OR” listings on the depth chart beyond the punter position. They include Dorian Baker or redshirt freshman Tavin Richardson and Jojo Kemp or Boom Williams at starting running back. As expected, the weakside linebacker spot between Jordan Jones and Eli Brown also seems too close to call.
▪ Sophomore George Asafo-Adjei is listed as the No. 2 at both right guard and right tackle.
▪ Junior college offensive lineman Tate Leavitt is a player they are pondering redshirting now, Stoops said, but they’ve seen some promising play from him when they have moved him to the interior part of the line as well.
▪ De’Niro Laster, who has seen time at both inside and outside linebacker, is listed as second string behind Denzil Ware at the defensive end/outside linebacker job.
▪ Kobie Walker is listed as the backup at nickelback, but is a flex player who could see time at any variety of positions. Blake McClain is listed at both the starting nickelback and starting free safety spot.
Special teams notes
A special teams group that took some abuse last season could be a strength this season, Stoops said, noting that the athleticism and speed overall have improved.
“I feel very good about our coverage units,” the head coach said. “With special teams, again, you’re talking about those 11 guys and how they execute together. We have a good nucleus of players with athletes that can run and can cover, but they cannot run and cover if the ball is not kicked properly. So, that’s a big piece of it.”
▪ Punting duties are still a dead heat between freshman McKinniss and sophomore walkon Kirshe. “They both have shown some real promise at times and both have been a little bit inconsistent,” Stoops said, noting that the decision on who punts first could come down to pregame warmups. “We’ll see. We’ll see how this week goes. It depends on the situation as well.”
▪ Charles Walker appears to have earned the punt returner spot ahead of Ryan Timmons. Kickoff return responsibilities will go to Sihiem King and Jeff Badet, two of the fastest players on UK’s team.
“I feel good about some of the things we’re doing on the return units. I really feel like we have the ability to make some big plays this year. I really do. So, that will be fun.”
▪ After graduating a four-year starter at long snapper in Kelly Mason, UK has two different long snappers on the depth chart. Tristan Yeomans is listed as the snapper on punts and Blake Best is the long snapper on field goal and point-after attempts. Yeomans is listed as the holder along with McKinniss as well.
Southern Miss at Kentucky
What: Season opener
When: 7:30 p.m.