Kentucky's offensive line is why the Cats can do something that hasn't been done in the Mark Stoops era
I’ll admit that there are things I understand better than offensive line play.
Why is the back-shoulder fade such a weapon? I know that pretty well. How does one properly cook a delicious omelette? I’m your guy.
But when it comes to offensive line play, I like using other experts to supplement what my eyes tell me. I’m man enough to admit that. One thing I understand is that Cole Cubelic diagnoses offensive line play better than me, so it catches my attention when he says that 2 of the top 3 tackles in the SEC are from … Kentucky?
MY top 5 SEC tackles for 2020: pic.twitter.com/GKWagnsEci
— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) June 26, 2020
(It’s Darian* Kinnard, but you get the picture.)
Another thing I understand is that Kentucky returns 4 of 5 starters from an offensive line who not only led Power 5 in rushing, but also was No. 2 in FBS in yards per carry. Oh, and that was with converted receiver Lynn Bowden starting at quarterback in the second half of 2019.
I understand why that’s, um, good. Really good.
Dare I say that with that offensive line back to go along with the return of Terry Wilson AND underrated backfield trio Kavosiey Smoke, Asim Rose and Christopher Rodriguez — they combined for 1,975 rushing yards on 321 carries in 2019 — Kentucky is in position to do something that hasn’t been done since Mark Stoops take over in Lexington. That is, post an offense that ranks in the top 40 nationally and in the top half of the SEC.
Let’s start with a little history lesson. The ever-changing Kentucky offense during the Stoops era has struggled to reach mediocrity, especially in terms of the SEC:
That’s an average of No. 10 in the SEC and No. 81 nationally. To say that it’s been a struggle to sustain offensive success at Kentucky would be perfectly fair. Stoops took over a program that ranked dead-last in the SEC in scoring in 2012 (it was No. 119 of 124 FBS teams). The Wildcats’ last top-50 scoring offense was when in 2010 when Randall Cobb led the nation’s No. 35 offense.
Whether it was 2010 with Cobb, 2018 with Benny Snell or 2019 with Bowden, Kentucky’s offensive success usually seems predicated on 1 all-time great offensive player dominating in a pre-draft season.
Maybe that’s the biggest difference with Kentucky’s 2020 offensive outlook. It seems like this group will be built around an entire position group and not an individual talent (excuse that cliché). It starts in the trenches (excuse that other cliché).
It seems like an ideal time to have 2 of the conference’s top 3 offensive tackles. They’ve got an important blindside to protect. In addition to dealing with his season-ending knee injury last year, don’t forget that Wilson played through a knee injury in the middle of 2018, which had a significant impact on his rushing ability. Now back and fully healthy, Wilson wants to be able to rely on his legs like he did in the bookends of the 2018 season.
Had Wilson been healthy in 2019, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran had planned on putting much more responsibility on Wilson’s shoulders. I’d expect that to be the case in 2020 with a veteran, 5th-year senior starting at quarterback, especially if Kentucky feels like it can protect him.
Speaking of that, it’s not only the offensive tackles who should give Wilson time to throw:
Center Drake Jackson career at Kentucky:
Pass-block snaps: 974
QB sacks allowed: 1 pic.twitter.com/R2Sdnel3yZ
— PFF College (@PFF_College) June 14, 2020
Jackson is the most valuable returning center in America, according to Pro Football Focus. Cubelic has Jackson as the SEC’s top center.
And this is pretty promising, too:
Lowest pressure rate allowed by power-five OL in 2019💪
Notre Dame 11.3%
Kentucky 11.6% pic.twitter.com/c7XrCoLCNG
— PFF College (@PFF_College) May 30, 2020
(That Auburn line only returns 1 starter compared to 4 for Kentucky.)
What Kentucky’s line is going to potentially provide is balance. They took off last year when Bowden became the dominant, run-heavy quarterback, and it didn’t matter that defenses continued to load the box.
But in 2020, Kentucky shouldn’t have to operate anything like that. As fun as that was, it put a ceiling on the team. Kentucky didn’t beat a ranked foe all year and it finished with the No. 76 offense in America. It was nearly identical to the offensive production from 2018, which also limited the team’s ceiling. It helped to have a legitimate top-10 defense with someone like Allen leading the way.
In a perfect world, Kentucky would be able to win in a variety of ways. When the Cats allow 28 points during the Stoops era, they’re 6-29. Even in 2018-19 with the likes of Snell and Bowden, Kentucky was 1-3 in those games.
What was the only win, you ask? The Belk Bowl, where Kentucky was 19 seconds away from losing another game in which it allowed 28 points … until Bowden did a Bowden thing:
— Connor O’Gara (@cjogara) June 18, 2020
That play was the perfect sendoff for the invaluable Bowden. Lost in the shuffle of that classic Belk Bowl moment was the guy who caught that pass, Josh Ali, is back. Also lost in the shuffle was the excellent catch he made on 4th and 3 to keep that final drive alive. He’ll inevitably have many more opportunities to come up clutch in the 2020 version of Kentucky’s offense.
Teams are going to dare Wilson to throw, and understandably so. Whether it’s been Wilson, Bowden or Patrick Towles, the passing game hasn’t been Kentucky’s calling card by any stretch. Besides that 2010 team boasting the program’s last top-40 scoring offense, that’s also the last time Kentucky ranked in the top 60 in passing.
So what will it take to record an offensive season that ranks in the top 40 nationally and in the top 7 in the SEC?
Averaging 32 points per game is the mark to hit — last year’s squad averaged 27.2 but was at 35 points in the final 6 games — which doesn’t seem like much of a stretch when the ground game looks like a near-lock to again finish as one of the SEC’s best. It’ll come down to Wilson staying healthy and leading at least a middle-of-the-pack passing game with significant production improvements from Ali and promising tight end Justin Rigg. I’ll bet on that happening.
I’ll also bet on the offensive identity looking significantly different than the 2018 and 2019 groups. The Wildcats aren’t about to resemble Mike Leach’s Air Raid or anything like that, but Gran wants to diversify from the ball-control team the Cats have been, and now, he has all the pieces set up to do that.
Stoops’ defense should get the help it’s lacked at times during this program-elevating period the last few years. As he saw last year, it’s amazing what an offense is capable of when it dominates in the trenches.
Excuse that cliché 1 more time. On second thought, we’d all better get used to hearing it said about Kentucky throughout 2020.