Big Blue Review: Kentucky superlatives for 2016 season
With Kentucky headed to postseason play for the first time in six years, it’s time for the Big Blue Nation to enjoy a look back while the Wildcats are getting ready for the Georgia Tech triple option attack in the TaxSlayer Bowl. Time to hand out awards to the best and brightest of the 2016 Wildcats.
Stephen Johnson, QB: Sure, Boom Williams’ 1,135 rushing yards and was the most exciting player on the team. Freshman RB Benny Snell was the most surprising player, and his 1,057 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns deserve (and will receiver) further mention. But the truly most valuable player on the squad was JUCO QB Stephen Johnson. Johnson played some garbage time in the season’s second week against Florida and then inherited the reigns for the remainder of the season when sophomore QB Drew Barker aggravated a back injury against New Mexico State in Week 3.
Johnson was greener than the Commonwealth Stadium grass, but over a full season of growth, ended up putting up 1,862 passing yards and 12 touchdowns against only six interceptions. He also added 278 rushing yards and two more scores on the ground. But most important, Johnson brought about an atmosphere of calm collectedness, twice engineering game-winning two-minute drives.
In the one game where Johnson was banged up, Austin Peay, Kentucky saw how hopeless their team looked without him, as the fell behind 13-0, only for Johnson to return to the lineup and key a 49-13 victory. Boom and Benny were the best players, and Jon Toth might be the one headed for the most productive NFL career, but for better or worse, Johnson was the heart of the 2016 Wildcats. And if that’s not the marker of the MVP, I don’t know what is.
Jordan Jones, LB: A sophomore who played sparingly in 2015, Jones is an undersized, high-motor backer cut from the same mold as prior Wildcats like Wesley Woodyard or Danny Trevathan. Jones was Kentucky’s most consistent defender in 2016. Jones has 100 tackles, which is second in the SEC. His 14 tackles for loss placed him sixth in the conference. He also had 4.0 sacks.
Much as with Johnson above, one legitimate testimony to Jones’s importance came when he missed most of the Tennessee game, and Kentucky was completely shredded by Joshua Dobbs in his absence. Other possibilities for this spot were defensive back Mike Edwards, who came on to play well down the stretch after a tough start, and pass rushers Denzil Ware and Josh Allen, both of whom had some big moments, but neither of whom was a consistent force like Jones. If Johnson was UK’s heart, then Jones, fighting through blocks and pressuring QBs all day long, was the soul.
Rookie of the Year
Benny Snell, RB: Kentucky’s backfield was already crowded. Boom Williams rushed for over 1,100 yards on the season, and was chosen preseason All-SEC. He was backed up by veterans like Mikel Horton and Sihiem King. So it was a bit surprising when Mark Stoops indicated that he did not want to redshirt Snell, a solid three-star recruit from Ohio. Snell played special teams and saw a few snaps in the season’s first two games.
It was in Week 3, against New Mexico State where Snell, along with new starting QB Johnson, made an impression. Snell had 17 carries for 136 yards and four touchdowns, and more than the numbers, he made an impression, with his hard-charging bowling-ball like runs. An instant impact player from the Wildcat formation, Snell could rarely be brought down by a single tackler, and delighted in carrying three or four defenders for extra yards.
Snell ended up having five 100 yard games, including 192 yards at Missouri. He finished the season with 1,057 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, both Kentucky freshmen records, despite running in only 10 games. Snell was eighth in the SEC in rushing yardage and third in touchdowns. His future is incredibly bright.
Assistant Coach of the Year
Eddie Gran, offensive coordinator: Despite an honorable mention nod to offensive line coach John Schlarman, this one isn’t close. Gran was Kentucky’s third offensive coordinator in three years. He spent the summer preparing a big-play passing offense, which sparkled for one half against Southern Mississippi, only to fall apart in the second half of that game. After a confusing Florida game and an injury to Drew Barker, Gran remade the Kentucky offense on the fly — or more accurately, on the ground, scripting an attack heavy on Wildcat runs and run-pass options for Johnson.
Kentucky ended up third in the SEC in rushing yardage, fewer than 4 yards per game behind second-place Alabama. Williams and Snell were both 1,000 yard rushers, but still, Gran came up with enough interesting wrinkles (witness Johnson’s 338 yards passing to upset No. 11 Louisville) to keep defenses honest.
It’s hard to say what a Gran offense will look like at Kentucky long-term. What is certain is that he has a relative genius for changing his plan to adapt to the talent on hand — and that, unlike a particular scheme or style, will never go out of fashion.