Mark Story

Mark Story: In replacing Neal Brown, the two big questions Mark Stoops must answer

Kentucky Wildcats offensive coordinator Neal Brown, left, and Kentucky Wildcats head coach Mark Stoops, right,  as the University of Kentucky played the University of Louisville at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium in Louisville, Ky., Saturday, November 29, 2014. This is fourth quarter college football action. Louisville won 44-40. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff.
Kentucky Wildcats offensive coordinator Neal Brown, left, and Kentucky Wildcats head coach Mark Stoops, right, as the University of Kentucky played the University of Louisville at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium in Louisville, Ky., Saturday, November 29, 2014. This is fourth quarter college football action. Louisville won 44-40. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff. Herald-Leader

Who Mark Stoops hires to replace Neal Brown as Kentucky offensive coordinator could be the most important decision the coach will make at UK.

In a perfect world, Brown, 34, would have stayed at Kentucky with Stoops until the rebuilding project they initiated two years ago was, if not complete, further along.

However, in coaching as in life, opportunity cannot be timed. Troy gave Brown a chance to become an FBS head coach before the age of 35. Had he stayed at Kentucky, there's no certainty such an opportunity would have come along again.

Before we move on to the factors Stoops must consider in replacing the former UK and Boyle County wide receiver, a word about Brown's two-year tenure running the Cats offense.

Though UK did not establish the degree of offensive identity anticipated, Brown took unjustified criticism.

No, the "New Air Raid" offense Kentucky had on the field these past two seasons bore little resemblance to the pass-happy attack Hal Mumme employed at UK in the late 1990s. This past season, Kentucky threw the ball "only" 33.8 times a game. However, in the three years (2010-12) Brown ran the offense at Texas Tech, the Red Raiders never threw the ball fewer than 44 times a game in any season. At Tech, Brown's offenses averaged 355.9 yards a game passing, 345.4 and 318.9.

That lends credence to the fact Kentucky simply did not have the personnel in place to run the kind of wide-open attack Brown employed in Lubbock.

If Brown's dream job is to some day come home as UK's head coach — and I suspect it is — he's better off going out on his own to build a head coaching resume rather than being a picked-apart Kentucky coordinator.

Ask Joker Phillips how the latter career course played out.

Moving forward, Stoops has some big questions to answer. Will UK stay in the "Air Raid" school for a new coordinator? Would more of a pro-style attack better fit the skills of incumbent Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles?

The advantages of staying with a pass-oriented spread system are obvious. UK and Stoops are deep into their third year spent recruiting for that system.

If Stoops plans to keep his remaining offensive assistants on staff, all except tight ends coach Vince Marrow are "Air Raid" guys.

Yet there are some arguments for Kentucky going to a more of a conventional attack. In his first year as Kentucky's starting QB, Towles had a better year statistically (see accompanying box) than either Andre' Woodson (2005) or Mike Hartline (2008) had in their redshirt sophomore seasons as first-time starters. Those two went on to become a good quarterback (Hartline) and a very good QB (Woodson) at UK.

At times, in his redshirt sophomore season, Towles showed an impressive ability to drive the ball down the field. However, the accuracy of the former Fort Thomas Highlands star tailed off badly late in the season. He completed only 50.8 percent of his passes in UK's final four games.

In an Air Raid, the single most important quality for a QB is the ability to throw short, accurate passes that hit playmakers in stride. Towles' performance late in the season raised anew the issue of whether he can consistently do that. Running a pro-style system, that would matter far less.

Already, the rumor mill is in overdrive with names to replace Brown.

From the Air Raid coaching tree are current East Carolina offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley , 31, a one-time Mike Leach disciple at Texas Tech and Murray State head man Chris Hatcher, the former Mumme-era UK assistant.

After East Carolina averaged 37.8 points and almost 544 yards of offense this season, Riley is one of the hotter names in the whirl of the coaching carousel. He may not be an easy "get."

Should Stoops prefer someone he has more personal familiarity with, current Cincinnati offensive coordinator Eddie Gran (35.2 ppg, 454 ypg) and Miami Hurricanes OC James Coley (26.5 ppg, 431 ypg) each worked with the Kentucky head coach on the staff at Florida State.

Florida offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, a former UK assistant who was part of David Cutcliffe's revitalization of Duke football, is presumably now a free agent.

What we do know for sure is that, for a head man with a defensive background such as Stoops, there's no more vital task than picking the right person to run the Kentucky offense.

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