When Kentucky’s offensive coordinators had the same roles at Cincinnati, many of their statistics from year one to year two were similar.
But the Bearcats’ offense under Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw took a big step forward in red-zone conversions in the second season, going from No. 113 in the country to No. 16.
It went from connecting on 73.7 percent of its attempts within striking distance of the goal to 90.2 percent. There’s a reason for that.
“We made that an emphasis,” Hinshaw said matter-of-factly.
After an offseason of self study, Hinshaw and Gran decided to look for more opportunities to throw the ball inside the 30-yard line.
“It really put pressure on the defense as soon as we’d get in the red zone instead of staying in wildcat or continuing to run the ball,” Hinshaw told the Herald-Leader recently.
It’s just one of the things the offensive coaches focused on in their downtime between seasons, and it paid off for Cincinnati.
They’re doing a similar self study this offseason at Kentucky, looking for ways — both strategically and situationally — to grow the UK offense in year two.
Since the start of January, the Cats’ coaches have been studying every offensive play they ran last season. Next comes what Hinshaw calls “cutting the fat.
“We cut the stuff that we shouldn’t have run or don’t need to practice anymore to get good at other things,” he explained.
It’s not necessarily taking stuff out of the playbook altogether, but analyzing how much practice time was spent on a play UK maybe used just twice all season.
“We don’t need to practice these 10 different concepts or 10 different routes or these 10 different run plays or whatever it was that we ran that’s taking a lot of time to put in if we’re not getting anything out of it,” Hinshaw said.
The UK staff also brings in gurus from other schools in other conferences to share strategies and ideas. Sometimes the staff borrows from the NFL and other levels, Gran said.
He used screen passes as an example.
“If you go somewhere and you get more screens, then you try to find more creative ways to run screens,” Gran said. “We find those things, what fits with our offense, and we’ll try to work them with our offense to see if we add to our screen package. If we think it can be successful and our kids can do it, then you add it.”
The plan moving forward is to continue to build on the ‘wildcat’ package, especially with several playmakers who are good at executing out of the direct snap, Hinshaw said.
“We also want to turn around and get better at the things we think will help us be able to put up more yards passing,” he said.
UK likely will add more shifts and motions with its tempo packages to give defenses a “completely different” look. “But it’s the same play for us,” Hinshaw said.
Kentucky’s offensive output in the upset win over Louisville — 581 total yards (352 yards passing, 229 yards rushing) — is the ultimate goal for next season, the coaches said.
“If you do that, you’re going to be a very, very potent offense that’s going to be able to score a lot of points and be able to do what we need to do on third downs and the red zone,” Hinshaw said.
The coaches would like to see the 67 plays per game they averaged in their first season at Kentuckyballoon to the 87 plays per game they had in their final season at Cincinnati. That jump would require the Cats to improve on third-down plays. Kentucky finished 12th in the Southeastern Conference in that category, converting on third down just 39.1 percent of the time.
Many of the new concepts Gran and Hinshaw develop in the offseason will be introduced during spring practice starting in March. It’s a time for experimenting and growing the offense.
“If we think it can be successful and our kids can do it, then you add it,” Gran explained. “If it doesn’t work, kids don’t understand it, then you throw it away. In the spring, that’s what it’s for. Let’s find out, because if it makes you better, then wow. You’ve done your team a good thing.”
But the biggest improvements likely won’t come because of things Hinshaw took away or Gran added.
Mostly, the advancements will come from experience, like a second year in the offense for quarterback Stephen Johnson and running back Benny Snell as well as other playmakers.
“This spring we’re not going to be installing a new offense,” Gran said. “They know it, so they’re going to be able to go. So we should be better, more efficient, add more.“
‘We want versatile guys’
There’s been much talk in the past decade or so about high school athletes specializing in one sport and whether that helps in their quest for a college scholarship.
Kentucky’s 2017 recruiting class debunks that myth. More than nine different UK signees excelled in at least one other sport in high school.
Defensive lineman Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald, 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds, averaged a double-double (19.5 points, 10 rebounds) for his basketball team in Lakeland, Fla.
One of the stars of the class, Lynn Bowden out of Youngstown Ohio, is averaging 24 points, six rebounds and seven assists for Warren Harding.
There’s defensive back Michael Nesbitt, who ran track in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and wideout Javonte Richardson, who lettered in track and basketball.
Defensive back Cedric Dort played only two years of high school football because he was so enamored with basketball, where he starred as a combo guard.
All of that makes Coach Mark Stoops happy.
“We want athletic guys; we want versatile guys,” he said on signing day. “Quite a few of these guys run track; they may play baseball, and I like that in a prospect.”
So what is Stoops’ favorite alternate sport for a football player?
“It’s hard to beat basketball,” he said. “I think a lot of guys — but the ball skills that are involved in baseball a lot of that translates as well. Anything. Soccer, baseball, basketball, whatever.”
The UK coach, who graduated from the wrestling mecca at Iowa, said he also has a soft spot for players that take on that sport.
“I don’t know if there’s a sport that challenges you more personally and more one-on-one than wrestling,” he said. “That’s a brutal sport. … At Iowa I was friends with some of those guys, and they’re all a little bit nuts, but they’re some very, very tough guys.”
Is four enough?
Sometimes there weren’t enough carries to go around for Kentucky’s running backs last season. There were so many options with Boom Williams, Jojo Kemp, Benny Snell and Sihiem King.
King was the odd man out for much of the season with Williams and Snell getting a bulk of the carries.
But with Williams and Kemp both leaving, UK will return just Snell and King as experienced runners next season. There’s also A.J. Rose, who redshirted last season and impressed coaches. The Cats also add true freshman Bryant Koback, but he’s coming off a broken leg that likely will hold him out this spring.
There also are other walk-on options who will contribute and versatile players like Bowden, who is listed as an athlete but will be taking his share of snaps in the backfield.
Gran, who coaches the running backs, said he believes the “magic number” for that room is five. Even that digit has its issues, though.
“The problem with five is everybody’s ticked off and it’s tough,” he conceded recently. “The problem with four is if you have a bad year of injuries, you can get thin quick. This year, we did not. This year we had guys stay healthy and that doesn’t happen all the time at that position.
“Most people have 4-5. Our numbers are right. I’d prefer five, but at four you’re still OK.”