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Kentucky Football

Why Kentucky's Offense Will Improve Moving Forward

September 20, 2019

Through the first three games this season, Kentucky has averaged 32 points per game in Eddie Gran’s offense, with a balanced attack. We now wonder how much Sawyer Smith can change that balanced attack, as we have only seen one game from the duo of Gran and Smith. The Wildcats threw the ball 35 times in Smith’s debut and ran the ball 41 times, which is pretty balanced. Last season against Florida, the Cats ran the ball 41 times, but only threw the ball 16 times. The difference in the offense from last year to this year is noticeable, and Eddie Gran deserves more credit than he is receiving. 

He has adjusted pretty well after losing a back that put up Herschel Walker numbers in his three years at Kentucky. The offense looks different without Benny Snell, but by the same token, this offense is much more explosive and is able to run more plays in a football game. You have seen that number grow impressively in just three weeks this season. 

Here is why I see the offense improving as the season moves forward.

Third Down Success 

This is something that has been overlooked thus far. Kentucky has been extremely efficient on third down this season. They rank third in the SEC, behind LSU and Auburn, as the Wildcats have completed 20 of their 40 attempts on the most important down in football, which is an impressive 50% that leads the SEC East. Not to mention, the Wildcats are 2-for-3 on fourth down, the one miss was, of course, the controversial AJ Rose wildcat run on 4th and one against Florida, which I truly thought was the only bad call Gran has had this season.

People will tend to remember the negative, but the numbers do not lie. BOTH Terry Wilson and Sawyer Smith are amongst the top ten quarterbacks in the nation according to Pro Football Focus on 3rd and 4th down efficiency. The numbers clearly back that up. 

Kentucky will have to continue to convert a high percentage on third down, as Gran has been putting the Cats in pretty manageable third downs, the big outlier was the 3rd and 21 in the first quarter against Florida, when Smith found Ahmad Wagner wide open on the sideline on what looked to be a comeback or stop route to get the Wildcats a first down. This is an offensive coaching staff that has managed the clock well and has put the offense in a good position to make plays. 

O-Line Dominance

I said it in the preseason, and I’ll say it now too: John Schlarman is one of the best offensive line coaches in college football. Year in and year out that has been the difference for Kentucky’s success offensively. This year, he has a top-three offensive line in the SEC. Luke Fortner has come along strong as the right guard, and he is paired up with the best athlete on the line, true sophomore Darrian Kinnard. The other side of the line is almost unfair with Logan Stenberg at left guard and Landon Young at left tackle, and then, of course, there is Drake Jackson, who is arguably the best center in the SEC.

This offensive line will get push more times than not, and they will be the difference moving forward. Against Florida, who ranks first in the SEC in sacks, they only got to Smith once. They also managed to rush for 140 yards on a Florida team that allows less than 100 yards on the ground per game. Georgia is first in the SEC in run defense through three weeks and here are the bottom five in the SEC against the run...

- South Carolina (10th)
- Mississippi State
- Tennessee
- Vanderbilt
- Arkansas (Last)

All five of those opponents are on Kentucky’s schedule. This is an area that will help Kentucky tremendously moving forward. Coach Schlarman does not receive enough credit, from the offensive line he puts out on the field every single year and the personal adversity he has continued to overcome. His offensive line is the difference for the Wildcats offense.

Lynn Bowden & Ahmad Wagner

Outside of having to deal with Alabama’s wide receivers, I don’t know how defensive coordinators are going to gameplan for Bowden and Wagner in the future. Bowden is that big-play guy that can make the first man miss in open space more times than not. And at 6-foot-5, 240-pounds, Wagner possesses size and speed that is damn near unguardable at the college level.

These are two guys that you almost have to double team, and that connection from them with Smith will only improve. They have become the two difference-makers in the passing game, and probably the best wide receiver duo in a long time for Kentucky. Defensive coordinators are going to struggle all season to stop these two guys, especially when you add in the other weapons, which we will go over shortly. This offense has two game-changers on the outside that, might I add, are far from their peak in 2019.

Here is the damage they have done in three games this season.

Bowden: 20 catches, 201 yards, 1 touchdown

Wagner: 9 catches, 198 yards, 2 touchdowns, 7 pass interferences drawn

Both Bowden and Wagner rank amongst the top 15 wideouts in the SEC. Kentucky, LSU, and Alabama are the only teams with more than one wideout in the top 15. In terms of the team, this duo has 29 of their 62 catches, 399 of their 735 receiving yards, and half of Kentucky’s touchdowns through the air. 

Personnel / Balance

Kentucky has great personnel, across the board, offensively. We have already talked about the number one and two receivers, Bowden and Wagner, but this is a team that has a slew of weapons in Keaton Upshaw (who has yet to reach the surface of his potential), and Justin Rigg, which are both probably better athletes than what CJ Conrad was, and then guys like Josh Ali, Bryce Oliver, and Allen Dailey have all made strides and shown the ability to create separation and make plays. Smith has a slew of weapons on the outside, and we have seen an increase in the backs coming out of the backfield to run routes as well, which I think will continue to increase.

Kentucky has a great one-two punch in AJ Rose and Kavosiey Smoke, they have gotten to the point where they are nearly splitting carries. However, who is the one and who is the two in the one-two punch. I would say through three games, Smoke has elevated to the one in that category, which is why you saw him get 16 carries against Florida, which was two more than Rose. With that said, it is just three games and Rose has done some things really well that people have been quick to forget. 

You never want a player to lose confidence, which is probably why Rose is still technically named the starter. Like I said though, it is just three games. Although Rose lacks the vision of Smoke at running back, he has all the talent to make plays, which he has proven he is capable of. I think Kentucky will be best suited to give Smoke around 16-20 carries per game and allow Rose to get around 12-16 carries per game. Both will increase as threats in the passing game as well, which is something Kentucky never had with Snell.

Smoke: 34 carries, 251 yards (7ypc), 2 touchdowns

Rose: 47 carries, 192 yards (4ypc), 2 touchdowns

Regardless, the criticism of Rose has been a bit unfair, as he has put up solid numbers. Anytime you average over four yards per carry, you are being productive. Kentucky has two runners in the top 15 of the SEC, which only South Carolina and Missouri can say the same. Kentucky is the only team with two wide receivers and two running backs both in the top 15 in yards at their position in the SEC. 

Coach Gran letting Rose take the direct snap on that 4th and one against Florida was a flashback to last year when he did the same thing late in the game on the road against Missouri. That was Gran’s only bad call this year, and if any back should be in that situation it should be Smoke. However, maybe Gran should look to quarterback sneaks under those circumstances, or maybe even a fullback dive to Drew Schlegel, both are high percentage looks in short-yardage situations. No back on the team can run the wildcat formation to the degree of Snell, and that is the realization through the first three weeks without him. 

So far this season, Kentucky has been converting on third downs and creating long drives, which is good for a football team to maintain. The Wildcats rank second in time of possession in the SEC, behind only Texas A&M. This is a team that has a great balance with that, as they have run the ball 117 times to 97 pass attempts, which will probably become closer to even moving forward. Gran has done a great job at getting his offense chances to make plays, here are the number of plays ran in the first three games.

WEEK 1: 65 offensive plays

WEEK 2: 75 offensive plays

WEEK 3: 76 offensive plays

We have seen that number grow tremendously from week one to week three, and if they can stay above 70 on average, the Wildcats will be put in a great position to put points on the board.

Gaining Experience

Sawyer Smith is coming off of his first start as the Wildcats quarterback. He has two weeks of practice under his belt as the first string guy. This experience in the SEC will continue to grow, and you will see steady growth in his play. Similar to how Terry Wilson grew as the starter throughout last season, the offense will come more natural as the season moves along. 

Not just for Smith, this is a really young team. Outside of Bowden, most of the targets are just now entering a highly productive role with the offense. Then you have a back like Kavosiey Smoke who is a redshirt freshman that is coming into his own and might get the starting nod eventually. 

This entire team is under their first season together, so that growth will be essential. They will face their first road environment this week against Mississippi State, but they will continue to learn how to respond to adversity as the season goes on. Saturday will tell us a lot about how the offense can improve and bounce back after a sloppy performance (at times) against Florida, which resulted in a crushing loss. 

The Addition of Isaiah Epps

Epps was projected to be a starter before the season, and the unfortunate foot injury sidelined him for the start of 2019. A timetable to his return remains unclear, but it should be within the next two or three weeks, I would assume. All this does is add another valid target on the outside for this offense. Epps is a guy that has already made plays for Kentucky. 

He had eight catches for 76 yards in his sophomore campaign a season ago. It is hard to forget the impressive grab he had right before the half against Ole Miss as a freshman. Epps has been known for his speed and deep routes, maybe he can fulfill that potential in his return to the field this season. The bottom line is, that will add depth to an already deep group, which just gives defensive coordinators one more player to worry about. 

Kentucky is currently averaging 32 points per game, which would be the highest under Eddie Gran at Kentucky if the season ended today. After putting up a season-low of 21 points to Florida, the Wildcats will try to improve as they travel to Starkville. This offense has shown an ability to make big plays both on the ground and through the air, which gives them a promising future. The Wildcats have the talent and balance to be one of the most dangerous offenses in the SEC, and I imagine they will have a big game on Saturday.


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