When Mark Stoops’ fourth Kentucky Wildcats club takes the field on September 3rd, he will have his third offensive coordinator. Shannon Dawson was let go after one season and will now head the offense at Southern Mississippi, who in an interesting twist, comes to Lexington to kick off the 2016 season. Here’s a look at the 2016 Kentucky Wildcats offense.
Stoops hired away Eddie Gran and Darrin Hinshaw from the University of Cincinnati to be co-head coaches of the offense. Gran will call the plays and work with the running backs while Hinshaw will work with the quarterbacks.
In 2015, they headed a Bearcat attack that averaged 538 yards a game of total offense, seventh in the country. By comparison the Kentucky Wildcats offense averaged 372 yards a game — only ninth best in the SEC.
2016 Kentucky Wildcats Offense Preview
The Wildcats return nine players who started in 2015 headed by quarterback Drew Barker. Barker took over for the now departed Patrick Towles starting the last two games of the season, completing 35 of 70 passes for 364 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Kentucky tied for last in the SEC in passing touchdowns with ten and tied for first in interceptions with 16. Gran and Hinshaw’s track record should lead to a much improved Barker working out of a pro-style offense rather than the “Air Raid” of the last few years. Gran and Hinshaw have also stated they want to use Barker’s size and run the ball with him.
— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) August 2, 2016
Behind Barker there is little experience for the Cats. Stephen Johnson II, a junior college player from California, will be the back-up. He is more of a dual-threat player and you could run the “Wildcat” formation similar to what Randall Cobb did during his time in Lexington, especially in short-distance and goal line situations. True freshman Gunnar Hoak will start the season as the third-string quarterback.
The running back position is the Cats’ strongest unit and may be the deepest in the SEC East.
Junior Stanley “Boom” Williams leads a cast of four talented backs that Gran and Hinshaw can put out on the field. Williams ran for 855 yards and six touchdowns in ten games last season and hopes to be the first Wildcat to rush for 1,000 yards in a season since Rafael Little in 2007.
Senior JoJo Kemp who ran for 515 yards and six touchdowns is more than capable of producing big numbers. Staying healthy is the biggest key for Kemp, however. He has been injured in each of his three seasons in Lexington.
Behind them is junior Mikel Horton, who is a bruising 6’1” 230 pounder who ran for 318 yards and three touchdowns in 2015. Gran compares his running style to former New Orleans Saints great Deuce McAllister.
The fourth back is sophomore Sihiem King who ran for 127 yards, including a 62 yard touchdown against Charlotte as a true freshman. King also serves at the Cats primary kick returner.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Almost everyone who caught a pass last season returns in 2016 for Kentucky. The Cats also have a new wide receiver coach in Lamar Thomas, who left the University of Louisville to come down I-64 to Lexington.
While the Cats return a number of experienced players, Thomas’ big job will be to establish consistency within the unit and limit the dropped passes which plagued the team last season. Kentucky had no touchdowns and ten interceptions outside their opponent’s 40 yard line in 2015.
Juniors Dorian Baker and Garrett Johnson combined for 101 catches for 1,302 yards and five touchdowns last season. The pair will be Barker’s primary targets. Barker will also have two more junior options in Jeff Badet (29 catches for 430 yards and two touchdowns) and Blake Bone (20 catches for 210 yards and one touchdown). Add senior Ryan Timmons to the mix, who led the Cats in receiving in 2014, and you have the makings of a very good group. Once again consistency will be the key.
Sophomore tight end CJ Conrad, who was woefully underused last season especially in the red zone, has the makings of being an All-SEC candidate. He should greatly improve on his 15 catches for 149 yards and one touchdown from 2015. Conrad had three catches and a touchdown in the spring game and should blossom in the new system. Nebraska transfer Greg Hart will be eligible this season and will complement Conrad.
2015 started with high expectations for the offensive line. Unfortunately, they didn’t quite pan out. The unit gave up 30 sacks which was tenth in the SEC. Senior center Jon Toth spearheads the line and he will be joined by George Asafo-Adjei, Ramsey Myers and Nick Haynes.
Stoops brought in three highly touted recruits for 2016, Kansas junior college tackle Tate Levitt, and two in-state players, Drake Jackson of Woodford County and Landon Young of Lexington Lafayette. Young finished ranked as the 29th best player in the 2016 class by Rivals and is the highest rated recruit ever at Kentucky. It will be interesting to see how long it takes each of these three to get some snaps with the offense, especially in Young’s case.
Under a new system with proven results and a good nucleus to work with, success of the 2016 Kentucky Wildcats offense will ultimately come down to Barker’s play. If he can live up to the billing he had coming out of high school, there is no reason the Cats can’t get to six wins and the school’s first bowl game since 2010.
Next time- a look at the defense and special teams.