Mark Story

How worried should UK football fans be about the offense?

It should not have been a surprise that Kentucky’s offense looked sluggish in the Wildcats’ 24-17 season-opening victory at Southern Mississippi.

Kentucky looked like a team playing without its leading rusher and three of its four leading wide receivers from a season ago. The Cats also looked like a team whose effective nine-man offensive line rotation from 2016 has been degraded by graduation, attrition, injury and illness.

UK produced only 254 yards of total offense. After having two backs run for more than 1,000 yards in 2016, UK could manage only 78 net rushing yards Saturday.

At his weekly news conference Monday, Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops put a positive spin on UK’s inability to move the ball via the ground. “There’s things that we can get corrected and will get corrected,” Stoops said.

With Eastern Kentucky slated to visit Lexington on Saturday for UK’s 2017 home opener, how worried should Wildcats backers be about the UK offense?

From no worry (0) to total worry (5), the “Big Blue Worry Meter” will tell you how much concern you should have in five vital areas.

Using the tight end

A season ago, UK quarterback Stephen Johnson and tight end C.J. Conrad seemed perpetually hexed when it came to connecting on short throws over the middle.

Over the summer, that duo plus backup tight end Greg Hart worked incessantly to fix that.

On Saturday, it looked like all that work had paid off. Conrad was Kentucky’s prime offensive weapon in Hattiesburg. The junior tight end caught three passes for 97 yards and a touchdown.

“We pretty much worked on it left and right,” Conrad said. “It’s timing.”

Big Blue Worry Meter: 0.5.

Quarterback accuracy

Stephen Johnson’s performance in his first start of 2017 was so-so.

In a very efficient first half, Johnson completed seven of 11 throws for 135 yards and a touchdown and also ran for a TD. After halftime, however, Johnson was 4-for-9 for 41 yards.

More concerning, Johnson completed only two of seven third-down passes. In the second quarter, Johnson misfired on a short slant to Tavin Richardson on 3rd-and-6 from the USM 48 that might have gone to the house.

On the first possession of the second half, Kentucky led 14-3 and had a chance to take full control. That opportunity got away when Johnson missed an open Charles Walker on an out pattern on 3rd-and-9 from the UK 44.

“The two plays that we cannot miss are third down throws when they’re open and we miss them,” Stoops said. “That kills drives. Those were the two big plays.”

Big Blue Worry Meter: 2.

Running the ball

After Benny Snell was limited to 67 yards on 20 carries by USM, it makes three games in a row dating back to the end of 2016 in which the Kentucky running back star has been held under 70 yards rushing.

Unlike last season, when he was sharing carries with Boom Williams and each gained more than 1,000 yards, Snell figures to be the focus of every defensive game plan in 2017. That certainly appeared to be the case at USM.

With No.2 back Sihiem King running eight times for 13 yards, nothing happened Saturday to suggest UK can take pressure off Snell with a two-headed running back platoon like it enjoyed a season ago.

Big Blue Worry Meter: 3.

Offensive line

A season ago, UK had enough quality depth to two-platoon every offensive line position except center.

This year, center Jon Toth has graduated. Guard Ramsey Meyers gave up football. Tackle Cole Mosier is out for the season with a torn ACL. Guard Nick Haynes is managing Type 1 diabetes and has endured a substantial weight loss.

Suddenly, nine-deep along the offensive front has given way to a thin Blue line. “We’re not as deep as we have been on the offensive line,” Stoops acknowledged Monday.

Big Blue Worry Meter: 4.

Stretching the field

With Ryan Timmons (graduated), Jeff Badet (graduate transferred) and Dorian Baker (injured) gone from last season, Garrett Johnson (two catches Saturday) is Kentucky’s only proven wideout.

With all those experienced wide receivers missing, UK used four true freshmen wide receivers in its opener.

Since Stephen Johnson’s best throw is the deep post, Kentucky desperately needs someone to become the stretch-the-field threat Badet gave the Cats in 2016.

After one week, the biggest question about the UK offense seems clear: How does Kentucky replace the big-play capacity it had a year ago that has been lost to attrition?

Big Blue Worry Meter: 5

Saturday

Eastern Kentucky at Kentucky

Noon (SEC)

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