One of the loudest crowd reactions during Kentucky’s open football practice Saturday was when Stephen Johnson found tight end C.J. Conrad in the middle of the field for a completion for a touchdown.
It was a play with such a high degree of difficulty for the offense last season that Johnson and Conrad missed that connection multiple times in games.
“We noticed it,” Conrad laughed when asked about the exaggerated crowd response. “It was a good feeling.”
If Conrad could have had a meeting with the fans at that moment, he might have explained why that play is more difficult than it looks.
“It’s play-action, and he’s got to put it right over the line of scrimmage, not too high for me, but high enough that it’s not getting batted down,” he said. “So I have to track the ball, which is hard because guys are swatting up in the air. So right now, we’re working on that every day.”
Conrad, fellow tight end Greg Hart and Johnson got together on a regular basis all summer to work on plays like that and others. They found a rhythm, a comfort with one another.
It’s an overriding theme for Kentucky’s players this preseason: a rhythm and comfort level with the offense now that UK is in year two with the same staff and playbook.
On Saturday after the open practice, senior wide receiver Dorian Baker described this camp as having “a different feel.”
Adding: “We trust the plays; we trust each other.”
Conrad tried to explain the difference in year two for a UK offense that returns eight starters from a group that would like to see Kentucky average more than the 30 points (ninth best in the Southeastern Conference) and 420.2 yards per game of a year ago (No. 10 in the league).
“Not having to learn a new offense, we are just working on the small things,” the tight end said. “It’s adding up to big plays.”
When you’re trying to digest a new playbook, you learn your specific routes and hope for the best, Conrad said.
“Now that we know the routes and know the plays, now we can talk coverage, what’s open, what wasn’t open, and reasons why,” he said. “We can cut plays out and move plays in. That kind of stuff is what we’re really doing now.”
In the wide receivers room, year two has meant less correcting of mistakes, Lamar Thomas said.
“The older guys are just working on their craft a little bit,” the wide receivers coach said. “They know the offense. They talk. They’re at the line and telling each other what they see. It’s a great thing. Last year they were just trying to learn their positions. This time they’re learning concepts.”
Because they now know the plays backward and forward, they can learn other positions, too. It’s enabled Garrett Johnson to work at both inside and outside receiver spots. Kayaune Ross has gotten to spend some time at the slot and provides a huge new target on goal-line plays.
It’s meant new movements and motions already in place less than two weeks into camp, both UK offensive coordinators explained.
With continuity comes confidence.
“We’re so far ahead of where we were and we’re really correcting a lot of things that are minute,” Darin Hinshaw said. “Again, I go back to the TV with the dial back in the day and then you have that fine tune dial. We’re really getting to fine tune some things.”
The players can spend less time worrying about what the playbook says and just make plays like that dump to the tight end over the line of scrimmage.
Those kinds of plays make Kentucky’s offense much more explosive and unpredictable, Johnson said.
“Everybody knows what we’re doing now, what Coach (Eddie) Gran and what Coach Hinshaw want to do with this offense, where we want to go with it,” the quarterback said. “To have everybody on the same page now, that’s the biggest thing.”