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Vaught’s Views: Can UK offense find way next year to put up huge numbers again?

Can UK offense find way next year to put up huge numbers again?

By Larry Vaught

Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and Lynn Bowden turned UK’s offense into a running machine in 2019 and leading the SEC in rushing next year would be fine with co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw. (UK Athletics Photo)

After playing a receiver at quarterback for eight games in 2019, it seems almost ludicrous to wonder if the Kentucky offense can be as productive in 2020 when the Cats figure to have a traditional quarterback — hopefully 2018 starter Terry Wilson who led UK to 10 wins before getting hurt in the second game last year.

“That’s a great question to ask at the beginning of year when we get started,” Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said.

Wilson was tore a knee ligament in the second game of the 2019 season and won’t be ready to participate in spring practice.

“He will be there but not able to go through full blown drills,” Gran said. “So how healthy will he be when we start in August? We have to develop other guys. What we did learn with Lynn (Bowden) is that we have packages we can use with Terry and Sawyer (Smith) as well and do some stuff. We might not be as explosive but there are different things we can do.”

Bowden did a lot. He rushed for a SEC best 1,468 yards in just eight games and averaged an incredible 7.94 yards per carry, best in the SEC. He ran for 13 touchdowns and led the winning touchdown drive in the Belk Bowl. As a team, Kentucky ran for 3,624 yards and ranked fourth nationally with 278.8 yards per game. The Cats had four players rush for over 500 yards.

Kentucky ran for 517 yards against Louisville, 462 against UT-Martin and 401 in their three final regular-season games and got 331 more in the Belk Bowl against Virginia Tech.

“You always want to be great and what was so amazing after Terry got hurt and then Sawyer was everybody on offense, both coaches and players, bought in to find a way to win,” UK co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw said. “We were able to do that and it’s something we will remember forever.

“We can incorporate a lot of stuff we did next year as we move forward. It’s exciting knowing that. My job will be to get the quarterbacks ready to play. We are going to throw the ball more obviously but we also know we have to run the football. You can control time and the game that way. Just look at that last drive (in the Belk Bowl) that took 18 plays, 8 1/2 minutes. That is what is fun and we’ve got the pieces back to run the football.”

Hinshaw said UK’s quarterback, or quarterbacks depending on injuries, have to execute the play-action pass as well as the RPO (run-pass option)  to make the run game work.

“I would love to be No. 1 in the SEC in rushing again,” Hinshaw said.

That would require UK’s receivers to sacrifice again like they had to do after Wilson and then Smith got hurt. Bowden through 74 passes in eight games and only completed 35 — and two came on the final game-winning TD drive in the Belk Bowl including the winning touchdown pass.

“I don’t know how many passes we even threw the last six or seven games but it wasn’t many. Our receiver had to stay motivated, run routes and be ready but it didn’t work out (to pass). We played four monsoon rain games was one reason,” Gran said. “But they all wanted to win. They knew the circumstances and really believed in Lynn. That actually says a lot about coach (Mark) Stoops and the culture he’s built here.”

When Kentucky was shredding defenses with the run late in the season, the receivers often made key blocks on big runs by Bowden, A.J. Rose and others.

“I think at the end of the year our perimeter blocking was fantastics. They (receivers) knew their role and wanted to win and it meant something to them,” Gran said. “I bet we had more big runs than almost any team in the country because of our perimeter blocking.”

That’s just one thing high school coaches and players across the country might have noticed. More importantly, Kentucky has won 32 games the last four years, including 18 the last two seasons that both ended with bowl victories.

“There’s no doubt we notice a difference in the perception of UK football when we are out recruiting now,” Hinshaw said. “It’s incredible the response we get from different coaches all over the country. But we still have to roll up our shirt sleeves and go to work every day. You can never take success for granted or know what adjustments you may have to make to be successful like we found out this past season.”

* * *

Sporting News columnist Mike DeCourcy remembers watching Keion Brooks Jr. play in high school and wondering if he was good enough to play at Kentucky, much less be a potential one and done player like other freshmen John Calipari has had.

“But he’s fine for a freshman. He’s going to do okay and has a good career ahead of him but he’s not there yet and is not a complete player yet,” DeCourcy said. “ There are three in the freshmen class nationally that are exceptional. One has checked out (James Wiseman of Memphis), one is hurt (Cole Anthony of North Carolina). Anthony Edwards of Georgia is the only one playing and the only no-brainer, lock top seven pick in the NBA draft. To expect everybody to be great is unreal.”

Brooks came up huge for Kentucky in Saturday’s win at Alabama when he had 10 points, including four late free throws, and seven rebounds for the second straight game.

Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne told Brooks he was going to “grow up” at the end of the Arkansas game and that he wasn’t taking him out of the game no matter what. Payne said it was a test to see how Brooks could do.

“He passed. I’m so proud of him because he’s had a hard road (this season). The pressure that he’s been under to perform is a lot. He stood up and he came through for us. Really big. Big day for him today,” Payne said after the win.

DeCourcy also senses there is a “lot of pressure” on sophomore EJ Montgomery who has yet to consistently reach the level of play most expected from him this year.

“The idea he has got to be this and that and has to be that today or he is not in the draft in June can put a lot of pressure on any player, but especially a player at Kentucky,” DeCourcy said. “Sometimes that can be overwhelming for a young player, especially one who is not there yet — and he’s clearly not.

“He can do things at times that look like a work of art. But he needs to be physically and mentally tougher. He’s only halfway through his sophomore year and he missed games this year with an injury that set him back.

“I would like to see him play more and play better but there’s still time for him to do that. EJ has struggled with his rebounding. There’s been confusion on offense and times he’s looked lost on defense. The areas he has struggled in are just not understandable and he has to do better.”

ESPN analyst Dick Vitale is waiting for Montgomery to break through, too.

“If they ever get Montgomery to be as good as what many people think he can be, then that’s a real plus for them and then they will be really, really good,” Vitale said. “But he has to get a lot better.”

* * *

John Calipari says it’s no accident that Immanuel Quickley has become such an effective player this season.

“He’s a confident kid, and what he does, he spends so much time in the gym, he expects to make them (3-point shots),” Calipari said. “If you know you’re not 100 percent, you’re not spending the time you can, you still look in the mirror.

“And if you’re giving 80 percent and then you get in the game and it doesn’t play out for you, you know, he’s — the kid lives in the gym. He’s kind of like Tyler (Herro), he’s like Shai (Gilgeous-) Alexander, those guys. He’s just like them.

“The guy, the energy, he finishes first on every run. He’s built his own (confidence).”

That showed when he overcame an off shooting game (3-for-14) to bury a deep 3-pointer late in the win at Arkansas and had his first double-double by getting 10 rebounds to go with 13 points. And he went 6-for-7 at the foul line.

What’s not as obvious about Quickley is that he’s building that same confidence on defense. He did a terrific job against Louisville’s Jordan Nwora and has carried that momentum into SEC play.

“I think the one thing that Cal talks about on the defensive end and our staff really tries to hit on is defensive confidence,” Kentucky assistant coach Joel Justus said. “That’s something that travels. It should carry over into postseason. It should go from freshman to sophomore to junior to senior, and I think that’s something we teach here a lot is how to do I build my defensive confidence.

“If I’m not making shots, if I’m not playing extremely well or as well as I would think on the offensive end, your defense is based off of your effort. It’s based off of your preparation, and Immanuel is a guy who in his second year has stepped up. He’s a guy that has paid greater attention to multiple positions in our walkthroughs, and I think that’s what you want and you need out of these veteran guys.”

Quickley was hitting 41 percent from 3-point range this year going into play this week despite going 1-for-5 at Arkansas. He’s also making 92.5 percent (62 of 67) of his free throws.

Immanuel Quickley has spent extra time to build his confidence and become one of Kentucky’s best players this season. (Vicky Graff Photo)

* * *

Kentucky signee John Young thought UK’s Belk Bowl win over Virginia Tech was “awesome” and sets a terrific tone for the 2020 season.

Young, an offensive lineman from Louisville, was at the Belk Bowl in Charlotte along with UK quarterback signee Beau Allen of Lexington. The two are now roommates after starting classes at UK last week.

“It was probably the most fun game I have seen in person. From just a football standpoint it was just a good game and the end was great obviously,” Young said. “It was nasty smash-mouth football. Everybody knew Kentucky was going to run and was forcing teams to try and stop the run and teams were not able to do it. I really hope this all carries over to next season and I am pretty sure it will.

“Kentucky is really starting to pick up steam as a top tier program. We are going to compete for the SEC East next year. To me, it’s the best time ever to be a Kentucky player.”

* * *

You might have missed it but the WNBA and its union recently announced an eight-year deal through 2027 where players will receive an average of $130,000 annual along with guarantees of full salaries during maternity leave. Top players can also now earn $500,000 or more annually.

“I just think it’s another step forward for the sport, and certainly for our players who aspire to be professional,” Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. “And we have former players right now who are all over the globe playing professionally.

“Anytime you can have something positive like that where there is a quality of life increase, a pay raise, a pay increase that is going to allow them to earn more money, it’s just fantastic development and our players were excited to see that. So many of them aspire to be in that league one day, so great development for women’s basketball.”

One who certainly will be is sophomore Rhyne Howard, who has been on a scoring tear all season but still maintains many other ways to also help her team win. Texas A&M coach Gary Blair knows she’ll be an All-American this season and is one of maybe three players in the SEC that can “create off the bounce and score with contact” like she did in a win over his team.

“We couldn’t guard her one-on-one. And there isn’t a sportswriter in here that could’ve guarded her one-on-one either,” Blair said in his postgame press conference.

Howard has scored 20 or more points in eight straight games – the school record in 10 by Valerie Still in 1981-82 – and came into this week with 956 career points. She’s on pace to become the second fast player in program history to reach 1,000 points.

Sophomore Rhyne Howard figures to eventually benefit by the higher salary numbers now available in the WNBA. (Vicky Graff Photo)

*  * *

Quote of the Week: “It’s not hard for me because I talk to my family every day. I’m a church-going guy, come from a church-going family so it’s kind of easy for me just keeping God first,” Kentucky freshman Kahlil Whitney on balancing basketball with a social life.

Quote of the Week 2: “She is going to take up for her dad on social media. I did not see that side of her in high school. She was more like ‘whatever’ when it came to her dad, but she has had a good taste of that blue liquid up there in Kentucky and now really takes up for him,” Briarwood Christian Academy (Memphis) coach John Harrington on Megan Calipari, a former student worker for him, on taking up for her father, John Calipari.

Quote of the Week 3: “He is a state kid but he is a very good player and very good student. He is a 3.8 (grade-point average) and is going to study pharmacy This kid can go (on the field) and we were excited to get him,” UK recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow on signee Octavious Oxendine, a 296-pound defensive lineman from North Hardin High School.

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