A Kentucky offense that hummed like a sports car in the first half at South Carolina early in the season seemed to stall completely at various points during the Cats’ late slide.
There was plenty of blame to go around on UK’s sputtering offense, which despite returning a bulk of its playmakers, averaged just 24.7 points and saw decreases in several other key categories.
But it’s not as simple as a change of plan or a tweak at a key position, Coach Mark Stoops said in a roundtable interview on Tuesday.
“I think we have to look at what we’re doing with X’s and O’s and coaching,” he said. “That’s part of it.”
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There’s also a need for players to get stronger, to get mentally tougher when adversity hits, and for Kentucky to add depth at specific positions.
“I talked about the mental, I talked about the physical, and then it’s coaching,” the head coach said. “You put those three things together, and I think we’ll improve. And I think there’s probably equal share in those three areas.”
One position group where Kentucky expected to see a bigger jump was at wide receiver. Stoops said there needs to be more consistency next season.
And more maturity.
“They played some good football, but too inconsistent for us,” he said. “That group needs to continue to improve to be difference makers. If you’re going to run this style of offense, they have to be difference makers.
“Even though we made some really spectacular plays at times, I just think the overall consistency of that group needs to improve.”
When asked if he was still devoted to the “Air Raid” concept, Stoops said he’s trying to find the right balance to help Kentucky be successful.
“Sometimes it feels like you’re way off and sometimes it feels like you’re not,” he said of the offense. “So, that’s where that inconsistency is frustrating to the fans and to us.”
As for who is running the offense, no matter what it’s called, Drew Barker is now “the guy” at quarterback with the departure of Patrick Towles, Stoops said.
Barker completed 50 percent of his passes in five games this season with two starts, including two picks and a score. He had 364 total passing yards and 45 rushing yards.
In his final half of the season, the redshirt freshman struggled against Louisville, connecting on just one of his final 15 passes for minus-1 yards.
In his interview on Tuesday, Stoops was non-committal about whether or not there will be personnel or structural changes to his coaching staff during the offseason.
“I’m not prepared to really talk about that,” he said. “I’m never going to just make decisions — I’m dealing with people’s lives. It affects a lot of people in this program and everything we’re doing moving forward.
“I will do what makes sense and what’s best for this program in my best opinion and not be influenced by anybody else. I think it’s fair to say you have to evaluate everything and, yes, we’re in the middle of looking into all that.”
When asked if he anticipated some changes coming, Stoops said: “Of course. There’s change every year in most programs.”
Will the changes be in staff or structure? “A little of both,” he said.
The credits were barely rolling on the Kentucky season before quarterback Patrick Towles announced he was leaving UK after graduating in December and planning to enroll at another school.
Stoops called it “a very amicable split” between the Cats and their two-year starter who was benched in favor of Barker for the final two games of the season.
“I didn’t want him to go, I’d love to have him on this team, but I very much understood his decision to want to go somewhere and get his last year,” Stoops said of Towles. “I wish him the very best. I care about him, and I think he’ll be very successful.”
In fact, as schools have inquired about his former starting quarterback, Stoops said he’s been nothing but complimentary of the senior, who finished his UK career with 5,099 passing yards with 29 touchdowns and 19 interceptions in 22 starts.
The 6-foot-5, 240-pound player from Fort Thomas also rushed for 353 career yards and 11 touchdowns.
“I’ve told every person that’s called I believe he’ll play on Sundays,” Stoops said. “He has that kind of arm and that kind of ability.”
Kentucky had several players such as wideout Thaddeus Snodgrass, linebacker Dorian Hendrix, cornerback Jaleel Hytchye part ways with the program this season, and most notably Towles.
Stoops, who said there are no confirmed transfers at this time, said he imagines there will be more attrition coming. “I’m sure there will be a little. I would anticipate a little of that, certainly by next fall.”
▪ UK struggled this season with field position and a poorly timed groin pull by its star place-kicker. Stoops said he’s decided to look for ways to build more competition at those key roster spots. His plan is to search for walk-ons or bring in preferred walk-ons at those spots.
“I want to continue to look for guys,” he said. “Depth, backup, preferred walk-ons, guys who can help us and sometimes you can find a really good player that way.”
▪ Linebacker Kobie Walker is expected to return to the field this spring for the Cats after having surgery for an ankle injury late in the spring. Stoops confirmed that the redshirt freshman also was battling some academic issues, too, that kept him off the field. “He was academically ineligible, and he was hurt,” Stoops said before adding: “So his injury is better and his eligibility is better.”