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Midseason Report Card: Kentucky Offense

Midseason Report Card: Kentucky Offense

We’ve reached the midway point of the season and Kentucky enters their bye week with an impressive 5-1 record. The Wildcats are currently ranked for the second week in a row and own a 3-1 mark in SEC play. It’s been a solid start for an offense that is averaging 29.3 points per game and 5.9 yards per play. There have been some groans lately, but let’s not forget about the impressive performances put on early in the season.

There is still a long way to go and it’s important to remember that three of UK’s conference opponents ranked in the top 25 of S&P+’s defensive efficiency rankings. The other two FBS opponents currently sit at 36 and 49. Eddie Gran’s unit has faced the roughest stretch of the season. Waiting on UK in the back half? Defenses that are ranked 53rd, 65th, 85th, and 87th in efficiency. Higher point totals are on the way.

Quarterback: C

When assessing UK’s quarterback situation, it is easy to have recency bias. Terry Wilson is fresh off his worst performance since the opener against Central Michigan and it was dreadful. On the season, Wilson is delivering the ball with accuracy but his passes are not going anywhere. He is only averaging 6.2 yards per attempt and this ranks 13th among starting quarterbacks in the SEC.

The wrap on Wilson going into the year was that he was going to make explosive plays but was going to struggle to consistently complete passes. Through six games it’s been the opposite. His completion rate of 66.4% ranks third in the SEC but he’s only produced passes of 25+ yards four times this season. That’s just not going to cut it and during the bye week UK must find a solution to this big play inability.

On the ground, the junior college transfer is second in quarterback rushing yards behind Nick Fitzgerald and is averaging 6.6 yards per attempt on non-sack carries. That’s a good rate but once again the big play element is falling up short. After rushing for a combined 185 yards with multiple 20+ yards runs in the wins over Florida and Murray State, Wilson has only recorded 81 rushing yards in the next three games. Defenses have adjusted and have been able to limit his big plays.

Turnovers have been an issue with Wilson. He has five interceptions on the season and two lost fumbles. Since the Florida game, he hasn’t had a turnover that has really hurt Kentucky. All of his interceptions have occurred on deep shots with no returns by the defense. That is the kind of giveaway you want to have.

In all, Wilson’s performance against Florida (256 total yards, three touchdowns) was the biggest reason for the Kentucky win. His performance against Texas A&M (112 total yards on 20 passes and 14 rushes) was the biggest reason for the loss. In the other wins outside of Central Michigan, the game has been managed by the raw quarterback prospect.

After playing some really tough defenses, the schedule lightens up in October and November. It will be essential for the young quarterback to have some good things happen against Vanderbilt and Mizzou to gain some rhythm and confidence for the rest of the year.

Running Backs: A

We entered the season knowing all about Benny Snell and he has lived up to the billing. The junior is a legit All-American candidate who is on pace for over 1,400 yards rushing and is currently second in rushing in the SEC. He’s been a bonafide star and is finally receiving the national recognition he deserves. But the biggest story in the running back room happens to be his sidekick.

Last season the offense took a big drop off whenever Snell left the field. That was obvious in the Music City Bowl. Kentucky totally had to scrap its ground game when Snell was unrightfully ejected from the game in the first half. One of UK’s biggest goals of the offseason was to find a legit secondary option to Snell  and they sure have found that with A.J. Rose.

The former high school quarterback from Cleveland struggled last year and seemed to spend most of the season in Eddie Gran’s doghouse. But after an offseason of hard work and a brilliant spring game performance, Rose has emerged as the future of UK’s running back position.

The redshirt sophomore has 237 yards on 36 carries with four touchdowns and a 6.6 yards per carry average. Those are excellent numbers and the UK ground game hasn’t tailed off at all with him in the lineup. It’s hard to imagine things going any better for Eddie Gran’s position group.

Wide Receivers: C

Let’s start with the positives. Lynn Bowden has been very efficient in the slot with catches on 80% of his targets and he leads the Wildcats in receptions and touchdowns. The former blue-chip recruit has shown improvement in his route running and he has the potential to develop into one of the best receivers in the SEC.

In the run game, the Wildcats outside wideouts have been near dominant blocking on the perimeter. Both Dorian Baker and Tavin Richardson have a size advantage against every corner they face and they’ve been able to impose their will in blocking situations. This ability has helped UK’s ground game turn seven-yards runs into 20+ yard gains and that should be appreciated.

However, the outside passing game is really struggling and not all of the blame falls on the quarterback position. Dorian Baker has been the most targeted player on vertical routes and too many of these passes are coming up empty. Drops have been a bit of the issue for the senior. After recording 11 receptions in the final three games of 2017, Tavin Richardson has only been targeted eight times this season with two receptions. Sophomores Josh Ali and Isaiah Epps have yet to make a significant impact in their college careers.

UK is getting very good slot play from Lynn Bowden and David Bouvier, but the Wildcats must find answers outside. One of the biggest missing pieces for this offense is getting the outside passing game involved. UK must find some answers in the second half of the season.

Tight Ends: B+

Man, I really wanted to give this group an A. As expected, both C.J. Conrad and Justin Rigg have done a very good job helping the offensive line create running lanes for UK’s potent ground attack. The duo may be the best blocking group in the SEC and they’ve shown versatility. At times, Conrad is used as a glorified fullback and on many runs he is able to land a key block on a linebacker. They’ve been excellent at this level.

In the passing game, Conrad and Rigg have combined for a very efficient 16 catches on 17 targets but the problem is that these receptions aren’t going anywhere. In the past three games, we have seen Conrad begin to pick up more yards and that is a good sign moving forward.

Getting this position more of an opportunity to help the passing game further down the field with only help out Terry Wilson.

However, I want you to keep this in mind. Kentucky must find a way to create vertical shots in the passing game. A way to do this could be using max protection (using as many pass blockers as possible) to give Wilson time to launch the football. If that happens, that means extra blocking responsibility for the tight end position. In this offense, the tight end spot is a selfless position and these two appear more than willing to fill that role.

Offensive Line: B

The Wildcats came out of the gates on fire to begin 2018. Behind Drake Jackson at center, UK ran for over 200 yards in each of its first four games of 2018 with 13 rushing touchdowns. The offensive line dominated in the road win against Florida and more then held their own against a Mississippi State front loaded with future NFL draft picks.

But in the last six quarters they’ve hit some bumps in the road.

Starting in the second half against South Carolina, UK’s front began to struggle. It didn’t get any better in the next game against Texas A&M with the Wildcats only rushing for 70 yards. John Schlarman’s unit is still fairly healthy but pre-snap penalties and some defensive adjustments have caused some problems.

With the running game struggling, the pass protection becomes a liability. Kentucky is currently allowing sacks on 7.5% of dropbacks and this is one of the worst rates in the nation. For this group to succeed, the ground game must produce consistently.

The Wildcats are still very healthy, but depth at tackle has taken a major hit with the losses of Landon Young and Naasir Watkins. Keeping the starters out of the training room will be vital to the success of the group for the rest of the season.

Coaching: B

I know the hot take of the moment is to hammer Eddie Gran for the team’s performance against Texas A&M, but it’s time to look at the big picture. Kentucky’s ball control, smashmouth offense has been a big key to the 5-1 start. Behind a solid offensive line and a stud running back, the Wildcats muscled their ways to wins over Florida, Mississippi State, and South Carolina in September.

The passing game has been a big issue and it is something that must be fixed. UK must find a way to manufacture some big plays in the passing game. Whether it’d be through the wildcat formation or another gadget play, UK has to be able to test the defense vertically. The Wildcats also need a receiver emerge as a big play threat in the next six weeks.

The Texas A&M performance was very bad and it should be used as a learning tool. It’s also important to remember that Gran and his staff put a great plan together against Florida that could’ve turned into a blowout if not for two first half turnovers. If you’re going to call out the bad, it’s only fair to recognize the good.

This group has much to work on but they’re in a good spot entering the second half of the season.

LOOK: Kentucky Basketball unveils 2018-19 poster

LOOK: Kentucky Basketball unveils 2018-19 poster

Kentucky Basketball has had some decent schedule posters over the years, but this year’s is by far the best.

Kentucky worked with renowned sports illustrator and self-proclaimed “vector monster” Rob Zilla (Robert Generette III) to create the poster, which features UK’s season-long “Dream Big” theme and original artwork inspired by the style of popular 1990s-era basketball posters.

The posters will be distributed at Big Blue Madness on Friday and beginning Saturday morning at Kroger locations throughout the state. Limited quantities are available in each store, so fans are recommended to pick up their posters as early as possible.

Yeah, I’m going to need about five of those.

Five Things We Learned From Mark Stoops’ Midseason Evaluation

Mark Stoops met with the media for the first time since Kentucky’s overtime loss at Texas A&M.  The film review gave him many reasons to be optimistic, even though it wasn’t enough to win at Kyle Field.

“I really was very encouraged by so many things in that game,” Stoops said.  “I really appreciate our players’ preparation, their work ethic, their fight and their desire to get that game won.  Obviously disappointed we didn’t come up with a few more plays.  We’ll work on that, but I love their effort.  It’s a good time for the bye week to get out here and continue to build on the things we’re doing and work on the areas we need improvement.”

While some players like Drake Jackson will use the bye week to get healthy, others will use it as an opportunity to get more playing time and improve on the positives from a 5-1 start.

1. The Good and the Bad from Terry Wilson

Through six games we’ve seen Terry Wilson at his best, like his gutsy performance at Florida.  Last weekend we saw him at his worst.  He has completed 67 percent of his passes and accrued six total touchdowns, while mitigating turnovers since the season-opener.

“He’s managed the game well.  In this last game well all know, and he knows, there’s things he could’ve done better and that was addressed. But he’s coachable, he’ll learn from that and he will get better from that alone and the experience.  I think just managing the game, putting us in a situation to win each and every game has been one of his strengths.”

There is still plenty of room for Wilson to grow.  His confidence seemed to wane in College Station.  Stoops wants him to get more comfortable with his offensive weapons.

“Obviously in the passing game and vision, just the timing of things needs to improve, and the confidence in the people around him needs to improve as well.”

2. Penalty Problems

Through the first four and a half games, the Cats kept their cool as others committed penalties.  In the last six quarters, UK has been flagged too often.  Against Texas A&M and South Carolina, Kentucky committed 19 penalties for 167 yards.

The situation affected us at times and that can’t happen if you wanna win consistently.  We have to address that and part of it is the aggressive fouls that sometimes are gonna happen.  But the pre-snap penalties of that nature we can’t have.”

The pre-snap penalties are unacceptable, but he doesn’t mind it if the flags are the result of aggressive play.

“Some of the best teams I’ve been on were highly penalized because of the aggressive nature of the team.  I’m not saying I want that, obviously you can’t have some of that, but we’ll continue to work through it.”

On the other end, it’s obvious to see how often Josh Allen is held, only for the officials to keep the flags in their pockets.  He can share his concerns with the SEC, but cannot share them publicly.

“I’m not at liberty to discuss what they tell me or I will be fined,” he said.

3. Welcome to the SEC, Chris Oats

Oats was spectacular in his first start.  The true freshman had four tackles, 1.5 for loss and a sack during the first half, but he did have a few freshmen moments.

“Chris is one of those guys, he’s got a great attitude,” said Stoops.  “He came off and he was telling one of the coaches, ‘That is a little more physical than I thought,’ and he’s a big physical guy.  We said, ‘Welcome.’

4. Searching for Wide Receivers

Production from the wide receivers has been sporadic.  Some of that falls on the quarterback’s shoulders, some on the coaches, but it’s also the wide receivers’ responsibility to get open.  This week he’s looking for playmakers to emerge.  One of those might be Ahmad Wagner.

“He is a guy that’s intriguing, that could step up as well,” Stoops said.  “He is a guy that you think about because we’ve been working with him and as we go good-against-good, he has that great size and he can go up over people at times and create that play that we’re looking for.

“If you look at Texas A&M going into that game, Clemson was in the same situation we were.  They just went up two different times and just simply went up over them and made great individual plays.  Otherwise they had the same problem with three-and-outs, and we know how good they are offensively.  We do got to look for options.”

Zy’Aire Hughes is another player that could see more opportunities.  His speed turned into a spectacular touchdown against Murray State.  Hughes’ speed could be used to help create more home run plays in the second half of the season.

5. Incredible Defense

Mark Stoops could not be more proud of his defense after their performance in College Station.  The best part?  There’s room to grow.

“I was really impressed.  Coming out of there I thought our guys played exceptionally well.  After watching the film I was very encouraged.  It was arguably one of the better games since I’ve been here, the way we played defensively.  And there’s still things we can do to get better.”

The difference with this defense is experience.  They’re seeing the ball well and anticipating the action before it happens.  Stoops is noticing it on the practice field and in the film room.

“They reiterate the messages sometimes before I get to it, which is a good thing.”

Give me the College Station Kool-Aid

Give me the College Station Kool-Aid

The Kentucky football team entered unfamiliar territory Saturday night at Kyle Field.  Like most of the BBN, I had no idea what to expect in College Station.  I was warned to stay away from the Yell Leaders’ cult, but after two days at Texas A&M I’m all in on the 12th Man.

It’s no secret the two foes were not well-acquainted.  There have been a few memorable trips to Reed Arena since the Aggies joined the SEC in 2012, but the football teams had not met in 65 years.  Last weekend I got to witness the A&M pomp and circumstance firsthand, and oh my, it was something else.

Previously, my only encounters with the A&M fanbase were at the SEC Tournament.  It was enjoyable to sit court-side as Drew Franklin mocked the Yell Leaders in all-white uniforms.  After all, they’re a pretty easy target.

However, the role of the Yell Leaders is much more significant at Kyle Field than it is next to a basketball court.  It came to light at the Midnight Yell.

The Midnight Yell is a Texas football-sized version of a pep rally.  At least 25,000 people filled two lower bowls of Kyle Field the night before the game.  Aside from the corny trash-talk, it warmed my heart to see the unity and camaraderie between Texas A&M fans.

The most rabid fans were students who arrived early to get a good spot to stand.  The rest of the crowd was filled with generations of fans, alumni and future Aggies.  From 60 to 6, all were welcome, even the Kentucky fans.  There were so many people in the stands, yet they all were on the same page thanks to the Yell Leaders.

As the students are taught once they arrive to campus, each cheer begins with a signal.  One indicator was the rolling of arms.  The “Beat the Hell out of Kentucky” cheer began when the Yell Leaders slapped their biceps.  Fans waited for the Yell Leader to progress before they all followed suit.

The choreographed cheers are fun to mock as a cult from afar, but are spectacular to witness in person. They didn’t even need music in-between timeouts.  Instead, cheers from the 12th Man filled the air like a European soccer match.

I find it hard to believe there is a place more deep-rooted in tradition than Texas A&M.  It isn’t just the fabled 12th Man.

There probably isn’t another non-academy school with a deeper military academy background.  During World War I almost half of their graduates served in the military.  In World War II there more more military officers that graduated from A&M than the Naval and U.S. Military Academy combined.

A&M honors their fallen alumni in a variety of ways.  While walking to Kyle Field for the Midnight Yell, I was instructed to remove my hat as we made our way through the Student Center.  It’s a small gesture of respect for those who lost their lives serving our country.

Symbolism is present throughout campus.  It’s most evident at the Bonfire Memorial.  The Midnight Yell featured a bonfire for 90 years until a tragedy in 1999 took the lives of 12 students.  The History Walk toward the memorial features 89 stones that create a granite timeline.  The Spirit Ring structure is a circle that features 12 portals.  Each portal faces the hometown of a student who passed away in the tragedy.  It honors the fallen and represents the spirit of the 12th Man.

Learn more about the Bonfire Memorial

What makes A&M a special place isn’t the symbolism and the tradition, it’s the people.

Kentucky fans everywhere were greeted with a “howdy.”  If you were hungry, they fed you.  If you were thirsty, there was a cooler of beer or a tap for you to enjoy.  People were so nice, it made one skeptical.  “Surely, there’s a catch,” went through my mind on more than one occasion.  Every UK fan I spoke to had never been treated so kindly on the road.   Most SEC football fans are nice to Kentuckians before football games because they are confident they will win.  A&M fans are nice because it is the right thing to do.

Friday night I sampled the College Station night life.  As I searched for a few friends at the Dixie Chicken, the first thing I heard were UK fans cheering.  To be frank, the “C-A-T-S CATS CATS CATS” chants were borderline obnoxious, even for a UK fan, yet the locals were just happy the BBN was enjoying their time in College Station.

The Texas A&M fans were fantastic, but what made the trip an overwhelming success was the presence of the Big Blue Nation.

Throughout the weekend you could not look in either direction without seeing at least one Kentucky fan.  Some were Texas natives, happy to see the Cats closer to home, but most made the 16-hour road trip to see the Cats in a new venue.  For a select few, the trip to Kyle Field meant they had seen Kentucky play in all 14 SEC stadiums.

As game time drew near, thousands gathered at the Cat Walk.  It was the most fun I’ve ever had during a UK football road trip.  It was the best kind of chaos.  Susan Lax has worked in media relations at UK for 23 years.  She could only compare Saturday’s Cat Walk to the Music City Bowl where tens of thousands greeted Rich Brooks, Andre Woodson and Co.

Inside the stadium, the team could feel the BBN’s presence.  When the 12th Man quieted in-between cheers, Kentucky fans roared.

Unfortunately, the UK Football road trip to College Station did not end with a win.  Still, the experience is unlike any other environment in the SEC.  If I wasn’t a Kentucky fan, I’d be the first to drink the Texas A&M Kool-Aid to become a part of the 12th Man.

Calipari shares notes from his first UK press conference

Calipari shares notes from his first UK press conference

As John Calipari enters his 10th season as the head basketball coach at the University of Kentucky, he dug up his page of notes from his very first press conference in Lexington, and shared it with his fans on Twitter.

Here’s what all he had written down on April 1, 2009:

As Cal says in his tweet, “Putting players first, striving for titles, holding players accountable and making #BBN proud has never changed and it’s created the culture we have now!