The king of the college football preseason yearbook, Phil Steele, was a guest on Tom Leach’s radio show last Friday where he plugged this year’s edition — at your newsstand June 28 — and discussed Kentucky football.
Early on, Leach asked whether there was anything in particular about the 2016 Cats that stood out when Steele was writing his detailed preview.
“I think the main thing Kentucky has got to do is increase that percentage of passes completed,” Steele answered. “It’s something they’ve been struggling in the last couple of years. In today’s game, especially in the pistol offense, you really have to hit 60 percent of your completions. You’ve got to get those short ones and complete the passes. It stops a lot of drives if you’re only completing 53-54 percent.”
To that I say: Bingo.
As Kentucky has gone 19-41 over the past five seasons, its leading passer each season (per attempts) failed to reach the 60-percent mark. Maxwell Smith came the closest, completing 57.4 percent of his passes in 2013. Patrick Towles completed 57.3 percent in 2014 but dropped to 56.1 percent last year before moving to Boston College as a graduate transfer.
To be fair, it wasn’t all on Towles. Over the past couple of seasons, UK’s receivers habitually dropped easy balls, a tendency new position coach Lamar Thomas hopes to correct. In their defense, there were plenty of uncatchable balls as well.
Either way, recent numbers pale in comparison to past percentages. For example, on his way to being the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft, Tim Couch completed 66.4 percent of his passes in 1997 and 72.3 percent in UK’s Outback Bowl season of 1998. And Couch threw a lot of passes — 547 in ’97 and 553 in ’98.
His successor, Dusty Bonner, completed 65.2 percent on his way to the 1999 Music City Bowl. True, many of those were high-percentage throws (as were Couch’s) in the Air Raid offense, but the quarterback hit those throws.
In 2006, when UK finally returned to postseason play, quarterback Andre Woodson completed 63 percent of his passes. The Cats beat Clemson in the Music City Bowl. In 2007, Woodson improved to 63.1. The Cats returned to the Music City Bowl, where they beat Florida State.
Kentucky’s last bowl appearance, the BBVA Compass Bowl, was in 2010 when quarterback Mike Hartline hit on 66.2 percent of his passes. Alas, a suspended Hartline didn’t play and UK lost to Pittsburgh. Kentucky hasn’t been bowling since.
The trend isn’t local. Five of the FBS’ top 10 teams in completion percentage last season also ranked in the top 20 in total offense. Western Kentucky led the nation in completion percentage at 71.8 percent and finished ninth in total offense. By comparison, Kentucky ranked 94th in completion percentage; 89th in total offense.
Look at the SEC. Alabama’s Jake Coker led the league and was 11th nationally in completion percentage at 66.9. Coker wasn’t the reason Bama won another national title, but he didn’t hold back the Tide, either.
So here’s the big question: Can Kentucky improve its completion percentage in 2016?
Con: This will be Drew Barker’s first season as the team’s starting quarterback, and history suggests first-year starters need time. In his first year as a starter, Woodson completed 57.7 percent of his passes. Hartline completed just 55.3.
Pro: New offensive coordinator Eddie Gran has a proven record in this category. Last year at Cincinnati, Gran’s quarterback Gunner Kiel was 18th in the nation in completion percentage at 65.2. The Bearcats were sixth in the nation in total offense.
“When I look at Kentucky, that’s probably the main number I’m looking at,” Steele said. “They need to have improvement in the percentage of passes completed, keep moving the chains and get the offense going.”
Kentucky quarterback completion percentage
(Most pass attempts that season)