The talking season is up and running and with Media Days now officially behind us it’s time to start looking ahead to the 2018 season. Mark Stoops enters year six in Lexington with a two-deep stacked with upperclassmen and depth at most of the 22 positions on the field. However, football’s most important position is still to be determined on the campus of the University of Kentucky after a competitive spring practice. Here’s what to expect from the Wildcats as they enter year three under the guidance of offensive coordinator Eddie Gran.
After a failed option experiment at the end of the Bill Curry era, Hal Mumme was brought in to install his crazy pass first, pass second, pass third offense known as the Air Raid and the results were instant. From 1998 until 2007, UK produced three quarterbacks that would be drafted after monstrous careers in college.
Tim Couch was a Heisman finalist as a junior as well as consensus All-American and the SEC player of the year. He completed an incredible 72.3% in his final year. Jared Lorenzen was a four-year starter who is still the program’s all-time leader in passing yards with 10,354. He was second team All-SEC as a redshirt junior in 2002. Andre’ Woodson set the program record for career touchdown passes with 81 as he tossed for over 9,000 yards under offensive coordinator Joker Phillips. For ten years Kentucky’s program was one of the best in the FBS at producing quarterbacks.
In the decade-plus since, the quarterback play has fallen off a cliff. Only one starter (Mike Hartline in 2010) has thrown for more than 20 touchdowns in a season. In six of the 10 seasons, UK has started multiple quarterbacks as four different offensive coordinators have struggled to find a high level answer behind center.
Under Mark Stoops, UK went back to the Air Raid and for a few weeks in 2014 the quarterback position looked to be in good hands with Patrick Towles. However, the wheels fell off for the offense in October and offensive coordinator Neal Brown left the program following the season. The next year was a disaster as first time FBS play-caller Shannon Dawson led UK to their worst offensive finish under Mark Stoops (103rd) per the S&P+ advanced stats ratings system found at Football Outsiders. Eddie Gran came on in 2016 but an injury to Drew Barker scratched the plans to be a pass first offense that wanted to play fast. Stephen Johnson filled in admirably as he tossed for 23 touchdowns in two seasons as a starter but UK is still looking to take the next step behind center.
The Quarterback Room
With the departure of both Barker and Johnson, UK will enter this fall with exactly zero experience at the position. The Wildcats will have four scholarship quarterbacks on the roster but none of them have taken a snap at the FBS level. Lynn Bowden is the only player to have thrown a pass in a live game.
Gunnar Hoak, a three-star prospect from the Columbus suburb of Dublin, was originally a recruit of Dawson’s after Mac Jones flipped his commitment from Kentucky to Alabama. After Gran was hired, him and quarterback coach Darin Hinshaw decided to keep the pledge of Hoak. The 6-foot-4, 206-pound quarterback is a pocket passer known for his accuracy after throwing 44 touchdowns and nine interceptions as a high school starter in a very competitive league. Hoak is entering his third year in the offense and has the label of a quick decision maker who will take care of the football.
With the departure of Barker and Jarren Williams flipping his commitment from Kentucky to Miami late in the process, the UK coaching staff found itself in a bit of a bind during the last recruiting period. Much like they did when they were hired in December 2o15, Gran and Hinshaw turned to the junior college ranks and earned a commitment from dual-threat quarterback Terry Wilson. The Oklahoma City native went to Oregon out of high school and redshirted after he was beaten out by fellow freshman Justin Herbert (who will likely be the first quarterback off the board in the 2019 NFL draft). Immediately after the season, Wilson transferred to Garden City Community College where he collected 31 touchdowns in 12 games. The transfer has three years of eligibility remaining and has been sloppy with ball (11 interceptions last season) but is a proven as a big play threat both through the air and the ground.
Both Danny Clark and Walker Wood enter their redshirt freshmen seasons with a long road ahead. The two former three-star prospects were both considered projects coming out of high school as Clark has raw power that needs to be tamed while Wood was a run around playmaker that played like a Johnny Manziel clone in high school. Don’t expect either to see the field this season but that was expected.
Kentucky enters the fall with an experienced offensive line and plenty of weapons at the skill positions. On most downs, Kentucky will just need a distributor but after last season it’s clear that more explosiveness is needed from the offense. After the spring game, Hoak and Wilson appear to be in a dead heat as this is a two-man race.
After a horrid year in 2015, the quarterback play has improved under Gran and Hinshaw as they have put their guys in a good position even if it means the occasional Wildcat package to help move the chains. Stephen Johnson is gone after spilling his blood and guts for the program the last two seasons so the shoes are big to fill even if Hoak and Wilson appear to be more talented on paper.
In an ideal world, UK would open with two or three inferior opponents so they could play both quarterbacks equally to see who performs best when the lights are on. Unfortunately, with a week two trip to Florida at night in The Swamp scratches that. Expect UK to use both as the passing potential and smart decision making of Hoak and the playmaking and running ability of Wilson are all needed for the offense.
As the schedule settles in, UK will have two monster home games against Mississippi State and South Carolina to end September. After the week three game against Murray State, the Wildcats must have a full-time starter in place. In the end it is my projection that the playmaking of ability of Wilson will just be too good to pass up. Over the last two years, UK has turned into a run oriented offense who wants to eat clock and dominate time of possession (117th in pace last season per S&P+) as they ride their potential All-American running back and experienced offensive line. Playing that way there is not always a ton of room for error so you need as much explosiveness as possible. Without the home run threat of Jeff Badet and Boom Williams, UK’s points per game dropped nearly five points last fall. Wilson gives the offense a guy who can throw it deep, extend plays with his legs on third down, and become a legit running threat to combine with Benny Snell in option looks. Kentucky will ride its strengths and give its superstar a sidekick in the backfield.
With that said, don’t expect Hoak to ride the pine all season. There will be a point in the year where UK finds itself down by three or more scores early in the third quarter and it becomes obvious that they must air it out. Here is where Hoak could come up big when UK goes tempo and decides to toss the ball around the yard.
Losing Johnson obviously stings but his injuries hampered the offense a bit to end 2017. With Wilson, Kentucky has an upgrade to its QB run game and with Hoak they have an upgrade, seemingly, as a passer. However, Johnson brought wins home as Kentucky went to consecutive bowl games under his leadership. His moxie and leadership will not easily be replaced and that must not be slept on.