QB Drew Barker will soon have his third offensive coordinator in three years. Across the college football landscape, it would be difficult to find many coaching staffs that stay together for more than three years. So, change is inevitable, normal, and expected. The best case scenario in coaching attrition is to lose successful coaches to promotion, not being relieved of duty due to lack of production.
Offensively, Kentucky has undergone both. Neal Brown departed Lexington and is now the head coach at Troy. Shannon Dawson and Tommy Mainord are searching for employment.
Arguably, Mark Stoops inherited the most talent stricken roster in college football. Going from point A to point B has been a frustrating yet understandable struggle. Let’s take a look at player development by position:
Quarterback, coached by Neal Brown and Shannon Dawson
Throughout the Stoops regime, sporadic quarterback play has plagued offensive production. From Max Smith to Jalen Whitlow, Patrick Towles to Drew Barker, inconsistency has been prevalent. Patrick Towles showed fundamental improvement, but foundered down the stretch in back-to-back seasons. Drew Barker hasn’t established enough of a body of work to make an accurate assessment. Overall, this position has not been placed in the proper environment/system to flourish. The Air Raid was once the most beautiful sixty minutes on turf. So was Barry Switzer’s wishbone. Football is a game of cycles. The next offensive coordinator hire’s system preference and willingness to stay the course may bring stability to quarterback development.
Running Back, coached by Chad Scott
Scott’s positional talent has taken a 180 from year one. Once a group that lacked breakaway speed, the current stable has the propensity to score on every touch. Saturday Down South described Boom Williams as the single most explosive running back in the SEC. JoJo Kemp has improved since his arrival. Mikel Horton’s body change resulted in a 100-yard game against Tennessee, even though he still lacks consistency. RB’s have improved in pass blocking and shown patience when hitting the designated target on the line of scrimmage. Both signs of development.
Receiver, coached by Tommy Mainord
The year prior to Mainord moving to Lexington, he coached two Texas Tech receivers that grabbed 82 and 92 passes in a season, both exceeded 1000 yards. Consistent with other positions, recruiting brought more talented players but at a pace that may have overwhelmed a fragile team dynamic. Past season receiver woes derive from a myriad of complexities. Rumored locker room divide, preferential play for quarterbacks, and other matters convoluted and lessened this position’s output. Current and incoming talent is in place for this to be the deepest and most explosive UK receiving corps in quite some time. But, it’s got to be displayed on the field. Player development at this position remains an enigma.
Offensive Line, coached by John Schlarman
Lack of inherited talent and depth has provided a skewed opinion. 2014 graduate Darrian Miller is currently in the NFL. Schlarman has also developed arguably the best Kentucky center in decades, Jon Toth. The 2014 Class had two promising tackles that quit the team. 6’9” 310-pound Josh Krok and 4-star Nick Richardson’s time in Lexington was short lived. Their departure placed the tackle position in a precarious situation. Jordan Swindle and Kyle Meadows were efficient early in the season, but as the year progressed, their effectiveness to protect the passer decreased. Both Swindle and Meadows maxed out their abilities as effort was never in question. 2016 Class and redshirts Mason Wolfe and Logan Stenberg are potential upgrades and could provide depth as well as competition.
Tight End/Fullbacks, coached by Vince Marrow
Scheme and the inexplicable avoidance of targeting two athletic TE’s remains a mystery. CJ Conrad and Darryl Long possess the talent and development to be featured, not ignored. Vince Marrow inherited a lesser talented group than the pair he featured in 2015. The lack of catches prior to Conrad/Long dealt more with the inability to get open than having passes designed to head the tight end’s way. Perhaps the new offensive coordinator will take notice that the current group of TE’s could be used more than just assisting offensive tackles in pass protection.
Taco Meat Collins was an unknown prior to the season opener vs. Louisiana Lafayette. By the end of the season, he was a mainstay in the Wildcat offense.
Defensive Line, coached by Jimmy Brumbaugh
Two NFL draft picks, Bud Dupree and Za’Darious Smith have proven Brumbaugh’s ability to mold elite talent. I’d argue that Melvin Lewis, CJ Johnson, and Farrington Huguenin are his best work to date. All weren’t considered professional prospects early in their careers. Today, all three are preparing for tryouts/combines with a legitimate chance to make a roster.
Nobody ever thought C.J. “Poop” Johnson could be able to make plays like this.
Linebacker, coached by DJ Eliot
Avery Williamson’s senior year was his best year. That is the goal of every program. Williamson has gone on to enjoy NFL success. Josh Forrest transitioned from receiver to be the next UK NFL linebacker. Forrest was the team’s leading tackler as his best football lies ahead at the professional level. However, Khalid Henderson is the example of positive player development. Not gifted with elite SEC talent, Khalid maximized his talents and turned in a solid senior season. If a single player on the roster can be singled out for development, Khalid Henderson would receive my vote.
Outside linebacker/Defensive End, coached by Jimmy Brumbaugh and Andy Buh
See Bud Dupree above. Buh had a difficult 2015 task. Junior Jason Hatcher’s suspension and injuries limited his presence on the field. Redshirt freshman Denzil Ware showed flashes of what I think will be a successful career. True freshman Josh Allen was forced into action when a redshirt year would have been best for his development. Both showed improvement. Buh is a former defensive coordinator; I am confident in his ability to mentor this position.
Cornerback, coached by Derrick Ansley
The best player developer on the coaching staff. Ansley started a true freshman at cornerback and hindsight indicates that Derrick Baity should have joined Chris Westry from game one. Like other spots, Coach Ansley inherited non-SEC talent as the previous UK cornerbacks were often picked on by opposing offensive coordinators. In 2016, cornerback will be the deepest, most developed, and best position on the Kentucky roster.
Safety, Coached by Mark Stoops and Derrick Ansley
See above. Joker Phillips’ safeties were strong against the run but lacked in pass coverage. Enter AJ Stamps and Marcus McWilson. Stamps’ junior year was magnificent. His senior campaign lacked during the middle of the year, but AJ returned back to high level performance before the season was over. Mike Edwards and Darius West earned playing time and performed well during their limited opportunities. Add Marcus Walker to the mix, and safety is the second deepest, best developed, and most talented position on the roster. To describe the development of this position in a word, “progressing.”
Mike Edwards’ future is promising.
Following back-to-back 5-7 seasons, player development has been a hot discussion topic. But a closer look indicates that players are progressing but not necessarily properly deployed, especially on offense. The defense has shown the most progress so far. After researching and analyzing player development one thought stands paramount: Mark Stoops’ offensive coordinator hire is a make or break decision. The personnel is in place.