It’s the balance that keeps defenses off balance.
It doesn’t matter to new offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson if the pass sets up the run or the run sets up the pass.
And that is precisely what throws — or is it runs? — defenses off.
“There’s so many options,” quarterback Patrick Towles said, trying to explain the offense. “We can put guys on the outside, we can go empty (backfield), we can go three guys in the backfield on the next play. There’s just a lot of stuff to defend.”
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Just ask the Kentucky defensive coaches and players, who worked against this offense all spring and now face it daily in fall camp.
“It’s a totally different offense with how they align, option routes and stuff like that,” linebacker Ryan Flannigan said. “It’s a very difficult offense, so it’s going to keep us on our toes and I like it.”
Safety Blake McClain, a self-proclaimed defensive film junkie, said Dawson’s brand of the Air Raid offense makes every player on the defense think, which can lead to slower reaction times.
“You see the playmaker over there, but the running back’s going this way,” McClain described, moving his hands through the air. “It’s like, ‘What’s going on?’”
The offense’s ability to get the playmakers loose and then get the ball in their hands makes it complicated, McClain explained.
“Dawson likes to use his playmakers more like the way Alabama used Amari Cooper,” the UK junior said. “He’s going to use his playmakers. They move that guy around and have different smoke screens like a running back going this way, but they’re really going this way to the play-maker. It’s kind of difficult.”
Dawson doesn’t have a set number of runs to pass. There’s no perfect ratio. It’s just about using the balance to keep opponents off balance.
“You want to try to attack a defense where they’re weak and at the end of the game, your best players better touch the ball a lot,” he said this spring. “If they don’t, that’s your fault as a coach.”
The toughest thing to defend is effective balance, UK Coach Mark Stoops has said over and over again. When a team can run the ball as effectively as it throws the ball, there’s no cheating for the defensive play caller.
“Coach Dawson does a good job of having a physical approach, and that opens up the opportunity to get the ball down the field, and that’s where we need to improve,” Stoops said on Media Day. “The run game puts pressure on people. You put pressure on people in the run game. It opens things up down the field.”
The balance is evident in stats from Dawson’s three seasons as offensive coordinator at West Virginia. The Mountaineers ran the ball 51.3 percent of the time last season, 47.9 percent the season before and 46.2 percent in 2012.
Years ago, the pass set up the run in the Air Raid, Dawson explained. But since then the style has evolved.
“I would think now it’s more leveled off to where when we get in heavier sets, people respect the run because we will call it a lot,” he said. “And so I think now it’s more of the run setting up the deeper pass.”
The big-play passes were commonplace in the spring and in fall camp and fans should expect to see them more come September.
“You’ve got to be able to stretch it when they’re stacking the box in this league,” Towles said. “There were times last year when we just couldn’t do that. We either didn’t have the personnel or didn’t make a good throw, but that’s definitely an emphasis of Coach Dawson’s offense.”
If the big play doesn’t get you, the pace might, said outside linebackers coach Andy Buh, a former defensive coordinator.
“He changes the tempos all the time and along with that, he mixes in different personnel groupings and he’s not just all pass,” Buh said of Dawson. “He can run his tempo offense with different personnel groupings and we can’t predict if it’s run or pass.”
UK showed balance last season (the offense ran the ball 52.3 percent of the time), but as Towles alluded to, there wasn’t always the personnel to get the big play off the ground.
That isn’t the case this season with Dawson declaring that UK is comfortably two deep at each position with its starting quarterback, leading running back in Stanley “Boom” Williams and several key receivers back.
Now it’s about finding the players who can make the big plays.
“A lot of the reason our offense is so hard to defend is because we got guys who can run it,” Towles said. “We have guys like C.J. Conrad who can split out or attach (to the line), or Boom who can split out or be in the backfield with me.
“There’s just a lot of stuff to defend. This offense with other guys might not be near as successful, but because we’ve got the guys to run it and so much depth at receiver, it’s a lot easier.”