After a whirlwind off-season, Mark Stoops and his staff will lead their Wildcats down to Nashville to take on Bobby Petrino’s Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. Excitement, which has been severely lacking in recent seasons, seems to be at all-time high levels as Coach Stoops has given fans much to cheer about in the spring and summer months. Season ticket sales are up, recruiting is operating at unprecedented levels, and who could forget that he brought in one of America’s most creative minds to run the offense. The Air Raid is returning to its Old Kentucky Home and it’s sparked discussions throughout the Commonwealth. Much of the conversation has been centered around the starting quarterback situation – will Whitlow or Smith win the job or will it be a combination of the two throughout the season? However, there’s another important part of the passing game largely being left out of the discussion – the receivers. Currently, Kentucky appears to be thin at the position, but with the overhauled offense coming to town, who knows what to expect? To find out, I did a bit of research.
During the past two seasons, the receiving corps hasn’t been much to write home about. Only one receiver, La’Rod King in 2011, caught over five touchdown passes and had over 500 yards in a single season. It’s not until you look back to three seasons ago until you see more than one receiver with numbers like these. Chris Matthews and Randall Cobb both decimated the 5 TD and 500 yard marks in 2010 (La’Rod King was 22 yards short of that mark). The below charts show Kentucky’s five leading receivers from the last three seasons.
It doesn’t take an expert to see that the production between 2010 and the past two seasons is drastically different. Touchdowns from the receiver position in 2011-12 can be matched and exceeded by Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews when their stats are combined. Of course, this is likely due to talent differential at the receiver position. Also, this production is likely different because of quarterback skill. In 2010, Cobb, Matthews, and King had Mike Hartline distributing the ball. Despite your personal feelings, Hartline was a very good quarterback as he averaged 7.8 yards per attempt and had over 3,000 yards passing in 2010. The following season was much different as Morgan Newton and Maxwell Smith both averaged under 5.5 yards per attempt and couldn’t even crack 1,000 total yards. 2012 was somewhat similar as injuries and inexperience destroyed Kentucky’s quarterbacks. However, Neal Brown is bringing a new offense to town, so what kind of production can receivers expect going forward?
As you can see from the above information, there’s a clear difference between Neal Brown’s Texas Tech squads and Joker’s Kentucky teams. First, the sheer difference in total yardage is what sticks out the most. In every season as offensive coordinator, Brown’s teams had at least two players with 500 yards and 5 touchdown receptions. The second thing to notice is the consistency in which receivers caught the ball. Of the 15 players who made the list for the Red Raiders, 14 were wide receivers by position, only one tight end made the list. It is worth noting that Jace Amaro (the tight end) only played 7 games last season, so a tight end was featured in Brown’s offense. Overall, this comparison brings about what you’d expect, the Air Raid team had more yards and touchdowns than did the pro-style team.
We can all look at the numbers and say something like, “well those are Brown’s old numbers, so we should expect something like that going forward,” but we know we have to delve a bit deeper. The main reason for this is the personnel issues. According to Athlon Sports, Kentucky has the 14th ranked WR corps in the SEC, which is cause for concern. Because of this, I expect more throws to be aimed for the tight ends and running backs this season. Tight ends Jordan Aumiller, Tyler Robinson, and Ronnie Shields, will all have their names called more often this year than last. Good news for for them as last season proved that Neal Brown isn’t afraid to feature this position in his offense. Regardless of precise totals, this year’s team will experience an increase in production, but where it comes from is up for discussion.