Hi! I hope everyone had a great off week! What did you all get into? Go to Keeneland? Just hang out around the house? Chores? Shop? It’s hard to go wrong on a beautiful Bluegrass fall day.
But, I found myself locked inside doing a deep dive on Kentucky’s football team; tendencies, favorite plays, etc. Why do such a crazy thing? We’ll, aren’t all UK football fans a little bit crazy? Plus, I find this stuff interesting, and I hope you will too. With six games left and three wins keeping UK from bowling, this is a great chance to take a nice, hard look at this team.
This piece is stuffed with information. You might be on your way to becoming a “Football Freddy” after this article or your preconceived notions about this team might be proven right. I didn’t try and put a spin on anything. I wanted to tell you how I see it.
This is your final warning on turning around. The rest will be very heavy in football jargon…
Statically, this is a bad football team. There is no way around it. This must be addressed first if looking at this objectively.
UK only ranks in the top-60 in four major statistical categories (Total Sacks, Rushing Offense, and Red Zone Defense and Offense); the other stats are nestled comfortably in the back third or near the bottom of the 128 BCS teams. *Note these stats were recorded after the week of the Vandy game.
Not a whole lot to brag about. UK’s aerial production has steadily declined with Stephen Johnson under center. But, Time of Possession, Rushing Offense, and Plays Per Game have been trending up since he replaced Drew Barker. Though UK is in CFB’s bottom-10 in plays/gm, over the last three games its 70.3 plays a game average would vault them at least 20 spots in the rankings. This is absolutely the byproduct of sustaining drives through a versatile and effective ground game.
Conversely since Head Coach Mark Stoops took a more active role in this defense, Yards Per Play Allowed and Total Defense has been steadily shrinking. Before Stoops stepped in, UK’s D allowed 6.4 yards/play. Over the last three games, it has given up 4.9 yards/play. That’s quite an improvement in a game of inches. Spectators have noticed the positive changes too. Beyond the numbers, they have sensed the discipline and presence Stoops has placed on his players the past month, but the numbers are still nothing to boast.
Third downs continue to be a major issue for this team. Though each third down is unique, the trends display clear shortcomings. While on D, the Cats mostly fail due to lack of pressure or losing at the point of contact. Giving opposing QBs four, five, six seconds to throw can be devastating for corners and safeties as they attempt to bottle up the other teams playmakers; it is even more hurtful to linebackers. Ample time allows for teams with size and speed advantages to gain extra space and separation from their man. Though this fault mostly comes from inability to execute from the Dline, tweaks and adjustments can help speed things up in their rush. I mean when opponents convert nearly half of its third down attempts, old approaches must be examined and new solutions should be sought. Whether its a new personnel group in certain situations, a “key” auto check on particular formations, or teaching better technique, changes are vastly encouraged in this area.
On the other side of the ball, Due to Johnson’s skill set as a QB, throwing darts and surgically dissecting defenses in obvious passing situations has yet to yield favorable results. When passing on 3 and 6+ this season, Johnson has only converted 6/27 (22%) with his arm; two others came from scrambling on pass plays. The Cats fair much better on 3 and 5 or shorter.
OC Eddie Gran wants to keep down and distance manageable so Johnson is not forced to sit back in the pocket and to keep opposing defenses on their toes. When his unit has failed to win on either 1st or 2nd down, drives have stopped in their tracks. When offensives are one-dimmensinal like this one is with Johnson, it gets really hard for a coordinator to fool his counterparts. To his credit, some wrinkles have been added. More power and man blocking schemes have been unveiled over the past month. But, nothing added in the passing game has helped Johnson remain comfortable or grow as a tosser. New plays have been called, sure, but nothing UK has repeatedly fallen back on in hard times.
All that falls back on trust. This is Johnson’s first major exposure to big-time CFB and has gotten this far riding his athleticism. So how he has been getting by shouldn’t be must a surprise. Plus being a first year QB in a new system, Johnson has to learn a whole lot of trust from his play caller in order to open up the playbook. He has shown flashes over the past month-plus but still has noticeable issues.
Throwing stance and balance has been a problem. His base remains too wide, which limits power and overall control of his passes. His size has limited his vision, which has caused him to hold onto the ball a little longer waiting until he can see his wide receiver get open. Adding onto that, he hasn’t worked enough with these wideouts to have a good deal of chemistry with them. When QBs have worked with a core group of guys for a long period of time, they know where they will be and their timing will be crisp. Think of it when you play a pick-up basketball game with people you don’t know. There is an adjustment period while learning your teammates’ speed and tendencies in certain situations. Outlet passes could be overthrown, bounces might need less english or spin, or some guys like the ball passed to a certain spot on their body before they catch and shoot effectively. The same idea applies to new QBs.
But after a month, Johnson’s results have been sporadic. At this point, we have a good idea of what kind of passer he is and what his ceiling is. With the exception of a few darts and one particular bomb to Jeff Badet, Johnson’s passing numbers heavily rely on yards after the catch. I have written lately that Johnson’s balls over 10 yards in the air have been wayward mostly resulting in incompletions. His best, most accurate balls travel about 5-8 yards past the line of scrimmage. But that’s okay, some of the best professional quarterbacks had some issues throwing downfield and made decent careers for themselves; Joe Montana in Joe Walsh’s West Coast Offense is the most famous example (Montana couldn’t throw a ball more than 35 yards in the air but was surgically accurate within 10 yards).
Despite these faults in his game, Gran hasn’t molded a passing game to better fit Johnson. Moving the pocket and calling quick passing plays could be one way to help his young QB, but those calls have only been dialed up a handful of times. Again outside of Run-Pass-Opions and an occasional slip screen, quick passes are nonexistent. I have stated a good number of times that this could immensely help Johnson’s confidence and play to his style while also progressively managing down and distance situations. UK has both ample size and speed from its WRs to run a bevy of quick passing concepts; only one discernible quick pass has been called more than twice, its Rub Play.
Despite this, UK’s run game has been laudable. We knew Boom and JoJo were talents. But with the emergence of Freshman Benny Snell, the backs have solidified themselves to be the deepest position group . So there’s no surprise that the majority of the calls have been run plays, especially after the NM St game. UK’s pro-spread has morphed into a power-run driven ball-control offense.
Though the stats may portray them as subpar, this group does some things very well. UK’s guards have produced a great average yards/carry on inside dives. Jon Toth also aids in that effort. He continues to be the “Big Toe” of the O-line. . With Cole Mossier out, Landen Young has been average in pass protection, but he has shown to be a excellent run blocker. Left outside zones are staples in UK’s favorite concepts like its RPO packages and QB zone reads. UK’s offensive line has been the foundation of these team. Of course when you set out to run the ball early and often, you won’t get very far without five dependable hog mollies up front paving the way.
From the very beginning, Stoops has desired a physical football team. Just take a look at this poorly produced package I put together as a UK student at his introductory presser; Stoops yearned for a tough, strong team. Like, I mean he wanted 70 slobber knocking players, which reflected his blue collar upbringing. But with BBN’s infatuation with the Air Raid, ex-Wildcat and Air Raider Neal Brown was lured from Texas Tech to be Offensive Coordinator. After his departure and subsequent suceessor failed, UK is now on its third OC in just as many years. Entering the year, UK ironically was still trying to find some sort of identity. Now they have one: a big, mean, physical team. Though the results thus far might leave something to be desired, there is no questioning this team no longer shies away from contact. They are vastly improved in the trenches.
Before the season, UK’s secondary and wide receivers drew the majority of the acclaim. But with injuries, new coaches, and jostling on the depth chart, neither position group is what we thought they were.
Though the wideouts look much improved in route running and in pass catching, they don’t have the QB needed for them to standout or rise to expectations. Badet, Johnson, Richardson, Timmons, and Ross have logged the most snaps. Dorian Baker, UK’s starting X WR, has recovered from his hamstring injury and will push for snaps, too. Sadly until Johnson becomes more consistent, we won’t know this unit’s true ceiling.
As for the secondary, constantly playing behind the chains and being put in stressful situations has resulted in the group being picked apart by competent passers. While they can hold their own in Cover-0 and Man situations for the most part, they continue to look flat-footed, slow, and confused when asked to drop into zone coverage. UK’s backers inability to cover slots, TEs, or scat backs has also put added pressure on the back-four to make the correct decision defending the air. Over the past few games, UK has been running 4-down Nickel looks more and more (Meaning one LB comes off for third CB). Using the Nickel, UK has had better results not only stopping the pass, but containing the run especially on the edge of the formation. Removing the first two games, this group has made improvement across the board, even if it has been minimal in some places.
CJ Conrad and Greg Hart may be known by the fans because they catch passes; that’s how most TEs are. UK’s TEs have proved to be effective safety valves for Stephen Johnson, but they have been vital to the Cats’ ground game. Whether its a backside seal, a fold, or a lead, both have showed ability to get the job done. Gran prefers it that way. Two-thirds of Kentucky’s called sets included at least one TE. Without them, UK couldn’t run its balanced gameplan. After all, Conrad leads the team in tuddys. But, there is room for improvement. Some of that depends on Johnson’s passing proficiency, but they can continue to grow into sound run blockers. New England Patriots LT Nate Soldier played TE in college and was converted to be the blindside. Okay, maybe they won’t take that career path, they could play in the mold of a Anthony Fasano or Craig Stevens of the Tennessee Titans.
UK’s front seven has caused this coaching staff a lot of headaches to start this season. They appeared to show little fight. They were tissue paper in the few games. But as aforementioned, this unit has grown a whole lot since. Though they still have moments of arm tackling and pull their fair share of head-scrathers, they now show fight on every snap. More stunts and edge blitzes have been called under Stoops (total sacks is one of UK’s best stats). The D-line remains to be an ailment overall and can let O-lines stiff them at times, but that can change.
As far as the LBs, Jordan Jones remains to be the heart and soul. If said this before, but he reminds me so much of Wesley Woodyard. Though he is undersized, he always finds himself around the ball. Ware and Jones have proved to be decent pass rushers. Their biggest problem, however, (and I’m talking about all the linebackers), is coverage in zone. Their mistakes sometimes have forced the DBs to try to do too much by covering extra ground, which have yielded plenty of gains. Like the D-line, they have improved against the run, but their stamina and depth will be tested in the back half of the slate. One more injury and this team could be in major trouble. Stats don’t lie; this team must get better for UK to go bowling.
For fans, the best way to see an offense’s gameplan is to review which plays receive the bulk of the calls. Since we don’t have the access to pick coachs’ brains due to the fact our professions don’t give us time to take time off for these inquiries, we often have to rely on local media; even they don’t care about these nitty-gritty details. So thank heavens for hobbies, right?
Below are the gameplans of the first six games based on 10-play share, the percentage of calls composed of the 10 most called plays.
Southern Mississippi: 50 Snaps: 10-Play Share 54%
RPO H Bubble, 5 Zone, Deep Double Post, All Seems, “Dynavoy”, RPO Y Stick/Release, Power 5, Clearout Shovel, PA Flood Left, 2 Dive
Florida: 48 Snaps: 10-Play Share 56%
4 Zone, 3 Dive, QB Outside Power, X Shallow, “Dynavoy”, Curl + Flats, Rub, RPO H Bubble, 4 Zone Read, Wildcat Dive
New Mexico State: 68 Snaps: 10-Play Share 67.4%
RPO X/Z Screen, 5 Zone Read, RPO H Bubble, 4 Zone Read, 5 Zone, 2 Dive, 4 Zone, RPO Y Release, 85 Waggle, 3 Dive
South Carolina: 67 Snaps: 10-Play Share 59.7%
RPO H Bubble, 2 Dive, 3 Dive, 00 Trap, Power 5, 01 Trap, Power 4, Curl + Flats, Zone 5, H Cross
Alabama: 55 Snaps: 10-Snap Share 61.8%
Wildcat Dive (2/3), 2 Dive, 3 Dive, Rub, 5 Zone Read, All Verts, Curl + Flats, RPO X/Z Screen, “Divide”, RPO H Bubble
Vanderbilt: 75 Snaps: 10-Snap Share 54.6%
Wildcat Dive (2/3), RPO H Bubble, 4 Zone Read, 3 Dive, Curl + Flats, RPO Y Stick/Release, Jet Sweep, 85 Waggle, 5 Zone Read, Flood
We all remember how those games played out and how certain elements affected the playcalling. Failure to sustain drives and recapture big plays in the second half doomed the Cats against So. Miss. Inability to pass against Florida’s athletic secondary and Drew Barker getting pulled lead to a more dialed down game plan as the match progressed. With Stephen Johnson expected to play, the New Mexico St. game was predicated on zone runs and the wrinkles off of them.
The South Carolina game saw a big shift in the style of offense. The Cats wanted to be a more physical team by running more man/power blocking schemes on the ground, the M.O. the Cats have leaned on ever sense. Though outmanned against Alabama, UK aimed to establish the line of scrimmage inside. Despite coming up short, Nick Saban gave the Cats a good deal of praise telling people “Kentucky was better than people thought.” During the Vandy game, Kentucky would live and die by its ability to control the ball and ground it out. With Johnson under center, continue to expect two-thirds of calls to be run plays and the Cats looking to play physical.
MOST EFFICIENT PLAYS (min 8 attempts). All of these plays/concepts top UK’s average gain/play (5.5).
BEST PLAYS OF THE YEAR (so far) These do not take in account timing or importance, just the play’s result in a vacuum. These five plays have complied roughly 16% of Kentucky’s total yardage.
All of these plays occurred during the first three games. In the last three games, UK has only had four plays over 20 yards; three of those were Boom Williams carries. UK hasn’t hit a pass concept deeper than 20 yards more than once.
Runs compose approximately 60% of UK’s playcalls. Through the first half of the season, RPOs (18%), Inside Dives (12%), QB Zone Reads (10%), Outside Zones (6%), Wildcat Dives (4%), and Outside Power Runs (5%) are responsible for 55% of Kentucky’s total yardage. The pass plays that have netted the most are Double Post (4.7%), 85 Waggle (4.3%), Dynavoy (3.8%), PA Flood (2.7%), and PA Deep Post (2.7%). Besides the Flood, all of these concepts resulted in one big play, skewing their figures. The majority of the remaining 27% of offensive yardage was a product of other pass plays, mostly called only once or twice.
ROUTES ON PAPER
Below, you will see every pass play that UK has run thus far from what I was able to ascertain from the TV broadcasts. My cadence ( formation + strength call + play orientation + concept) may seem alien to some, but it will help talk about these concepts. I like to use colors for formation names; things with L’s in them mean TE on the left, while things with R’s or rhyme with right mean the TE on the right. *Note this is not UK’s vernacular for these plays.
Even Numbers=Right Orientation, Odd Numbers=Left Orientation
80/81: Normal 5 Step Drop 82/83: Play Action Dive 84/85: Play Action Rollout
The “Dagger” concepts aim to hit the primary WR on a 10-15 yard dig or out-route. The complimentary routes tend to be clear outs, which force the DBs to cover deeper and open up a soft spot for the primary WR. Some wrinkles are designed to beat Cover-3 (Three Deep Zone), others Cover-2 (Two Deep Zone).
Trips Bunch Right 80 H Angle
These concepts are meant to isolate the primary receiver either with route combinations or alignment. The route combos can be clearouts or negate the safety from doubling. These plays make it easy for the QB to know where to go with the ball. If the primary target is covered, however, these plays can often break down.
These concepts are meant to stretch defenses from sideline to sideline. While some have vertical aspects to them, these concepts mostly work horizontal. Floods flow all receivers towards one sideline while crosses try to isolate one WR streaking across the formation. Some concepts operate as picks, allowing criss-crossing receivers to gain an extra step on the coverage.
“The Short Stuff”
These plays are all about vertically attacking downfield. Needless to say, UK has not had the best results on these concepts, especially after the first game. When UK has resorted to calling these plays, a good number of them break (meaning the pocket collapses or the QB tucks and runs due to lack of confidence in his WRs). Though they have more often than not been unsuccessful, these concepts keep the defense honest and help open up the box.
(In order to see these plays animated, visit here https://www.playartpro.com/football/plays?search=uk16)
So looking at the remaining games, there is some reason for optimism. Four of the last six opponents can be beaten. But again, a lot of UK’s success will hinge on its run game and its defenses ability to keep foes under 20 points. Best case scenario, they win seven; worst case they win four. Some national pundits and writers are prognosticating the Cats to end up with enough wins to get to a bowl. If their predictions hold true, UK will end up in either Memphis or Birmingham. Hey, at least its somewhere.
That’s it. You made it. I feel like I should give you a prize for enduring this 4400-word mess.