John Clay

Kentucky football’s promising returnee is offensive stability

Kentucky co-offensive coordinator Eddie Gran went right to penalties when asked what the Wildcats most need to fix.
Kentucky co-offensive coordinator Eddie Gran went right to penalties when asked what the Wildcats most need to fix. cbertram@herald-leader.com

A year ago, they started from scratch. New coaches teaching a new system to a new team. Again. Eddie Gran was Kentucky’s new offensive coordinator. Darin Hinshaw was Kentucky’s new quarterbacks coach. That’s a lot of new.

This year, however, the new is gone. Seems strange to say, considering that this is the first time since Neal Brown’s final season as the OC, back in 2014, that the Kentucky offense isn’t learning a new system.

“We’ve never had the same offensive coordinator it feels like for so long,” said senior wide receiver Garrett Johnson after Tuesday morning’s practice at the Joe Craft Football Training Center.

After Brown became the head coach at Troy, Mark Stoops hired Shannon Dawson off the West Virginia staff to fill the opening. The move didn’t work quite as planned. The Cats went from averaging 384.3 yards per game to 372.0 and from scoring 29.2 points per game to 24.7. At season’s end, Stoops shuffled the deck again.

In came Gran and with him Hinshaw. Stoops and Gran had coached together under Jimbo Fisher at Florida State. In fact, after coming to UK, Stoops had tried (at least) once before to coax his old friend to Lexington. Running Tommy Tuberville’s offense at Cincinnati, Gran declined. When Stoops asked again a year later, Gran said yes.

Actually, he only agreed after Stoops allowed him to bring along Hinshaw, Cincinnati’s quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator. The two were a package deal. Turned out, a very good deal.

Sophomore Drew Barker began the 2016 season as Kentucky’s starting quarterback. After the first series of the third game, Barker was lost for the year to a back injury that ultimately required surgery. In stepped Stephen Johnson, juco transfer from California that Hinshaw found the previous January. Johnson had never played a down of FBS football, much less SEC football.

Initially, Gran’s offense incorporated Barker’s arm. When the personnel changed, Gran tweaked his scheme to fit not just Johnson’s legs but the running style of a freshmen wrecking ball. Benny Snell’s first carry of his college career did not occur until the third game. By the end of the 13th, he had gained 1,091 yards and 13 touchdowns on 186 attempts.

It’s not what we couldn’t do (last year), it’s what we’re doing so much better.

UK quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw

Meanwhile, Kentucky rushed for 234.2 yards per game, its highest total since 1979. It averaged 420.2 total yards per game and 30 points. It went 7-6. It earned a bowl bid. It more than validated not just Stoops’ faith but the skill and adaptability of Gran and Hinshaw.

Now, it’s year two. Where at this time last year, Gran was teaching, now he can polish, refine, expand.

“We could use these three (days of) installs right here and play a game,” Gran said Tuesday after the team’s third practice of the fall. “And that’s something we didn’t do and couldn’t do last year.”

“It’s not what we couldn’t do (last year), it’s what we’re doing so much better,” Hinshaw said. “We have a lot of the same offense, a lot of the same plays, but now we’re perfecting them.”

“We’re so much further advanced,” said senior receiver Dorian Baker. “We already have a great relationship with the coaches. As far as the veterans, it’s great because we get to come back to the same offense and know everything that is going on.”

The logical expectation is an increase in production. That’s not a given. Gone is Boom Williams, who led the team in rushing with 1,170 yards. Gone is Jeff Badet, who led the team in receiving yards with 670. Gone is Jon Toth, who anchored the offense line at center.

And yet, after leading UK to the TaxSlayer Bowl, Stephen Johnson is back. Barker is healthy. Snell is back. Baker, bothered by injuries last year, is healthy. Garrett Johnson, who led the team with 39 receptions last season, is back, as well.

Moreover, Gran and Hinshaw are back, as well.

Said Garrett Johnson, “Now it feels like we’re just rolling right into it.”

Kentucky offense per game under Mark Stoops

Season

Rushing

Passing

Total

Points

2013

147.9

193.2

341.2

20.5

2014

153.2

231.2

384.3

29.2

2015

162.7

209.3

372.0

24.7

2016

234.2

186.1

420.2

30.0

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