Quarantine life rolls on for all of us continuing out best social distancing practices as we ride out the storm brought on by COVID-19. While we all attempt to flatten the curve, I’ve been looking for things to keep me busy around the house as I attempt to not drive my wife crazy. So it felt like a good time to get lost in the numbers and do a deep numerical dive on football’s most important position.
On recent episodes of the world famous 11 Personnel podcast on the KSR podcast feed, Nick Roush and I have talked pretty openly about the next goal for the Kentucky football program. At the Joe Craft Football Training Facility, they are all in about getting to Atlanta to play for an SEC title and that means winning the program’s first ever division crown. To get there, the play of the quarterback position needs to take a step forward.
Throughout the Mark Stoops era, we have seen three different quarterbacks start double-digit games and each has fallen into what could be tagged as a game manager role. UK has used all three to varying success in the run game, but has gotten average to above average results from each when it comes to the passing game.
In this exercise, we are going to take a glance at some of the numbers but in some non-traditional ways. We will be using some advanced stats to dissect each quarterback and show you the specific areas Kentucky must get better production from its leader of the football team moving forward.
Patrick Towles: 22 starts, 56.3% completions, 6.7 yards per attempt, 35 touchdowns (11 rushing), 24 interceptions, 353 rushing yards
In two years as the starter, Patrick Towles put up the worst numbers of any large sample size starter of the Mark Stoops era. Playing for both Neal Brown and Shannon Dawson, the former blue-chip recruit was able to hit on some chunk plays (big play rate equal passes of at least 25 yards) but it was not enough to make up for very inefficient work in moving the chains. His adjusted yards per attempt (metric that factors in touchdowns, interceptions, sacks) was below six yards per throw and that is very ugly. He easily had the worst quarterback rating and that resulted in the least amount of wins.
He was the only quarterback in this group to play for more than one offensive coordinator and to post a losing record in a season. After effectively being used in the run game by Neal Brown (303 yards, 6 touchdowns), Shannon Dawson decided to not use that (64 yards) as 2015 would go down as the worst offense in the Mark Stoops era with a No. 79 finish per SP+.
Stephen Johnson: 22 starts, 57.5% completions, 7.5 yards per attempt, 32 touchdowns (8 rushing), 12 interceptions, 702 rushing yards
Following an ugly 0-2 start in 2016, Stephen Johnson stepped into the starting lineup following a Drew Barker back injury in game three. From that point forward, Kentucky won 14 of their next 24 games going to two bowl games and giving Mark Stoops his first wins over Louisville, Mississippi State and Tennessee. The former two-star junior college transfer has the best passing numbers of the Stoops era and if it weren’t for late season injuries they would likely be much higher.
Johnson owns the highest big play rate, first down rate, yards per attempt, adjusted yards per attempt and lowest interception rate we’ve seen during the Stoops era. He rushed for over 320 yards in both seasons as Kentucky transitioned to a run first offense in the middle of 2017. The transfer from Rancho Cucamonga helped build the culture of the current UK football program and we could be looking at a different coaching staff if he doesn’t enroll in the spring of 2016.
Terry Wilson: 15 starts, 66.6% completions, 7.0 yards per attempt, 18 touchdowns (5 rushing), 8 interceptions, 591 rushing yards
After being knocked out of the lineup just two games into his junior season, Wilson has a smaller sample size than the other two quarterbacks but a much higher winning percentage. The former Oregon Duck has a 12-3 career record as a starter, but it’s been a strictly game manager role. It helps when you average nearly seven yards per rush in non-sack carries.
The Oklahoma City native and junior college product easily has the highest completion rate and QB rating of the quarterbacks. He has protected the football, but has been unable to hit on the big play. In 320 career passes, we’ve seen Terry Touchdown play it safe and not be afraid to put the punt team on the field. That was mainly by design in 2018 and we didn’t get to see the playmaking progress in 2019.
Top-20 Quarterback in 2019: 13 starts, 65.7% completions, 8.4 yards per attempt, 35 touchdowns (8 rushing), 9 interceptions, 249 rushing yards
Last year Brock Purdy led Iowa State to a 7-6 record and a 42nd offensive SP+ finish with a Florida bowl appearance. Despite the above average team accomplishments, he had the 20th best quarterback rating in college football. As the above chart shows, he had a similar big play rate to Stephen Johnson but he moved the chains at a much higher clip and kept interceptions down while throwing for nearly 4,000 yards on 475 attempts. Kentucky needs for their quarterback to get much, much better at moving the chains and converting on third down. Creating big plays is also an offense’s best friend.
The Next Step
In recent times, we have seen two quarterbacks really step up and become difference makers for the program on good teams. Both Tim Couch and Andre’ Woodson led teams to seasons where they spent time in the top 25 and were two of the best seasons in program history.
Couch led the 1998 team to the Outback Bowl as he led the country in completions, attempts and completion percentage. He tossed for 4,275 yards putting up 7.6 yards per attempt with a touchdown rate of 6.51 percent and a quarterback rating of 153.3. He was a Heisman finalist and the first big star of the Air Raid scheme.
After a big time junior season where the North Hardin product put up a robust 9.1 adjusted yards per attempt and a quarterback rating of 154.5, Woodson came back the next year and threw a program best 40 touchdowns in 2007 for a touchdown rate of 7.72 percent as UK spent over half the season in the top 25, beat No. LSU and hosted College Gameday for the only time.
Both Couch and Woodson were the best quarterbacks in the SEC during their peak and their play helped rise the production of the rest of the roster. During the Mark Stoops era, we’ve seen the opposite happen. The current staff has done a great job building up every other position and it has resulted in a lot of wins thanks to a very strong run game tied up with a salty defense. The results have been a 32-20 record the last four seasons as UK is becoming one of the more consistent programs in the SEC. But it’s time to take the next step.
Since Eddie Gran’s arrival, Kentucky has been snakebitten when it has come to quarterback health. Drew Barker was lost three games into the 2016 season and Stephen Johnson battled multiple injuries that slowed him at the end of both his junior and senior campaigns. Terry Wilson hurt his leg against Mississippi State in 2018 and that slowed him in the middle of the season. The next year, Wilson was lost for the season and his replacement Sawyer Smith immediately broke a bone in his wrist and separated his shoulder. That’s a lot of bad stuff to happen in a four-year period.
The program is due for some good breaks at the quarterback spot and they need to be able to strike when it comes. They need this position to become a playmaker on third downs and to be able to create more explosive plays in the vertical pass game. It takes more than one to do this as the offensive line, running backs, tight ends and wide receivers must all chip in.
If Kentucky can somehow find a way to get to 30-35 quarterback play this upcoming season they will have a chance to have a very special season because all of the other pieces are there.