Kentucky football's offense seems ready to reinvent itself and throw the football more

Gentry Estes
Courier Journal

LEXINGTON – The best University of Kentucky football team in more than 40 years had statistically one of the worst offenses in the SEC and some of the worst passing numbers in college football.

For offensive coordinator Eddie Gran, that wasn’t preference but necessity.

“The only thing I could have done last year is screw it up. That’s it,” Gran said. “We had a brand-new quarterback. We could run the ball. We had a great defense and we played great special teams. So if I go back there and I want to rip it around (passing) because I want statistics, then I wouldn’t be here right now, because that wouldn’t have been very smart. … The bottom line is win the game.”

Players and coaches are saying Kentucky is going to throw the football more in 2019, which makes sense. To do so would take advantage of quarterback Terry Wilson’s experience, a promising group of wide receivers and a prime perimeter playmaker in Lynn Bowden.

“This year, (Gran) wants to throw it more, be more explosive,” running back A.J. Rose said. “I can’t wait to see what he’s got planned.”

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What Gran may ideally want, however, hasn’t often been reality at Kentucky. To believe such chatter about the Wildcats’ offense opening up this season in the post-Benny Snell era is to think a powerful trend is about to change.

Gran’s tenure at Kentucky has been an example that a coordinator's success might not be about his numbers. With Gran entering his fourth season, none of his Wildcats' offenses have ranked better than 96th nationally in passing or thrown for more than 188.2 yards per game.

It’s easy to forget Gran’s 2015 offense at Cincinnati threw for nearly 360 yards a game, ranking sixth nationally.

“We’re throwing it all over the place, but that was who we had personnel-wise,” Gran said. “We came here, and (quarterback) Drew Barker, that first game (in 2016) we were throwing it. We had the guys around him, and we felt like he had the arm to get it done. He got hurt, and we had to do something.”

That something was a dramatic shift toward running the ball. It worked, and it hasn’t ceased since. Physical, ground-oriented football became Kentucky’s identity during a recent rise toward prominence in college football, with Snell leading the charge.

The 2016 season, Gran said, taught him “about humility.” He called it the greatest lesson he has had in 35 years of coaching.

Kentucky’s sagging offensive numbers last season accompanied wins and a quarterback who was quietly dealing with knee trouble and lacking confidence. Wilson admitted Friday that at one point last season “it just felt like everything was just falling down on me.”

Gran’s response at the time meant a lot to Wilson. The coach sat the player down and asked what he wanted to do.

“We were taking out numerous plays that I wasn’t comfortable with,” Wilson said. “Just doing that, it got me feeling more comfortable."

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Wilson said he was worried when word got out this past offseason of Gran flirting with Georgia about a position on the Bulldogs’ staff. Gran said later that he decided against leaving because he loves the community.

“I knew personally that Gran was going to stay and come back for us,” Wilson said. “I can definitely tell you he made the right decision coming back. It’s going to be fun.”

Oddly enough, the coordinator who once threw it all over the field at Cincinnati might have to reinvent everything again to go back to that approach at Kentucky.

There might not be much of a choice, at least for a while, as the Wildcats break in new starters on a defense depleted by departures, especially in the secondary. Last year's team didn't require as many points as this one probably will.

To hear Gran tell it, this season's offense won’t reach an extreme for running or throwing. At least, that’s what he hopes.

“We want to be a little bit more balanced this year,” Gran said. “So if you have 80 plays and you have 40 throws and 40 runs, that would be perfect. That’s the perfect scenario. What we’ve got to do is we’ve got to be more efficient in the passing game and more explosive.”

Wilson is expecting Kentucky to be a more up-tempo offense in 2019 to build on glimpses of hurry-up heroics, most notably last season’s game-winning drive at Missouri. Note Gran’s “80 plays” comment. UK’s average last season was 64.

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Obviously, all of this will likely hinge on Wilson. Gran’s confidence comes from Wilson’s efforts to improve this past offseason and the fact that he’s entering a second season as Kentucky’s starter.

“What he’s done with his technique and fundamentals over the offseason, I don’t think there’s any question he’s going to be a better football player,” Gran said. “… So we’re going to find out our personality of this team. We’re going to see what Terry can do — always build around our quarterbacks — and then we’re going to go from there.”

And if Gran has to audible on the fly, he has done it before.

“Every team is different,” UK head coach Mark Stoops said. “You have to find the best way you can to help them win — if that is throwing the ball however many times that is. If we have to do that to give us the best opportunity to win, then we’ll do that.”

Gentry Estes: 502-582-4205;; Twitter: @Gentry_Estes. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: