Mark Story

Mark Story: Can UK's Air Raid 2.0 produce one-year offensive turnaround Mumme did?

Air Raid 2.0: UK's offensive coordinator Neal Brown talked to quarterback Maxwell Smith during the spring game last month.
Air Raid 2.0: UK's offensive coordinator Neal Brown talked to quarterback Maxwell Smith during the spring game last month. Jonathan Palmer

When Hal Mumme first installed the Air Raid offense for Kentucky's football team in 1997, the result was, arguably, the most dramatic one-season turnaround in UK sports history.

In 1996, as the Bill Curry era limped to a close, a ground-hugging Kentucky offense scored a combined 27 points in its first five games. In '97, Mumme's first UK attack scored 28 points in the season's first three quarters.

Having inherited a team whose offense averaged 12.6 points and 217.8 yards a game, Mumme's first fancy passing unit put up 31.6 points and 474 yards a game, broke 51 school and 15 Southeastern Conference records and featured the nation's leading passer.

Now, 16 years later, another new Kentucky coaching staff is bringing a version of the Air Raid attack back to Commonwealth Stadium. In a case of de ja Blue, new UK head man Mark Stoops and offensive coordinator Neal Brown are also inheriting a team whose offense was mostly barren the season before. In eight SEC games in 2012, Kentucky averaged 11.1 points and 255 yards.

So the question on the floor this morning is whether it is realistic to expect Kentucky's Air Raid 2.0 to produce in 2013 the type of immediate reversal of results that Mumme's original operating system did in 1997?

When Gamblin' Hal came to Lexington, he inherited a Kentucky program that had gone 9-24 in the three prior seasons. Yet the gloom and doom surrounding UK football obscured the fact that the new coach inherited some quality parts.

Though they had been given precious few chances to show it under Curry and his offensive coordinator Elliot Uzelac, incumbent wide receivers Craig Yeast (26 catches in '96), Kio Sanford (five) and Kevin Coleman (seven) were well suited for a passing offense.

Put in an attack that placed a premium on hitting athletic receivers with short throws and letting them make plays, Yeast caught 73 passes in 1997, Coleman 52 and Sanford 36.

Running back Anthony White (17 carries, one reception in 1996) had been a non-factor under Curry. But with natural elusiveness and pass-catching abilities, White became a lethal dual threat (723 yards rushing; 453 receiving) under Mumme.

All five starters on the 1996 Kentucky offensive line returned and, given a chance, it turned out they could pass block.

Most importantly, Mumme inherited Tim Couch. Committing pigskin malpractice, Curry and Uzelac had refused to alter their option-heavy offense in 1996 to showcase the best drop-back passing QB the state of Kentucky had ever produced. Couch mostly sat behind the gutty but limited Billy Jack Haskins and threw only 84 passes (completing 32 for 276 yards and one touchdown) all season.

Unleashed in 1997, Couch passed for 3,884 yards and 37 touchdowns and led Kentucky to memorable wins over Louisville and Alabama.

Stoops and Brown in 2013 are not inheriting five returning offensive line starters nor a Tim Couch. They will have three starting offensive linemen back and should get quality QB play.

Before he was knocked out by injury, Maxwell Smith averaged 322 yards a game passing in last season's first three games. If Smith is healthy and reclaims his starting job or if Jalen Whitlow, the star of the Blue-White spring scrimmage, or former Kentucky high school star Patrick Towles prove good enough to beat him out, then UK is improved at quarterback either way.

Incoming freshman Jojo Kemp may prove to be the running back most capable of duplicating the rushing/receiving versatility White brought to the 1997 Air Raid. Among the returnees, Josh Clemons, if healthy, has standout potential as a runner. Seniors Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George are dependable and sophomore Dyshawn Mobley looked promising in the spring game.

When UK spring practice ended, the Kentucky brain trust did not sound confident any of the returning Wildcats receivers were headed for a Yeast-style breakout. Like the '97 receiving corps, Demarco Robinson (28 catches in 2012), Daryl Collins (17), A.J. Legree (12), DeMarcus Sweat (four) and Rashad Cunningham (zero) had meager numbers in their season before the Air Raid arrived.

The pressure to make plays for UK might fall heavily on incoming receiver recruits Ryan Timmons, Jeff Badet, Alex Montgomery and juco Javess Blue.

Bottom line: The Kentucky offense in the coming season all but has to be better than the post-Smith 2012 version. Given a brutal schedule, however, it's apt to take more than one year for Air Raid 2.0 to party like it's 1997.

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