The Liam Coen era is off and running in Lexington with the beginning of spring ball. The Wildcats are currently installing the new scheme and it has been called an NFL offense already. A lot of things are going to change for the Wildcats, but some will stay the same.
The offensive line and tight end positions remain two of the strongest units on the team. Kentucky’s new play-caller seems to recognize that and will lean into the strengths when building this year’s offense.
It all starts with the Big Blue Wall. New coach Eric Wolford has some pretty big shoes to fill replacing John Schlarman, but the identity is there. Darian Kinnard is one of the best tackles in college football. Super senior Luke Fortner is one of the best guards in the SEC. Austin Dotson, Kenneth Horsey, and Quintin Wilson all played plenty of snaps in 2020. The highest-rated player in the class of 2021 will play guard.
The offensive coordinator has quickly realized what was inherited in the trenches.
“They have a great way about them that, to me, that’s going to be the identity of our offense and of our team,” Coen told the media on Tuesday. “As far as our offensive line takes us is where I want this thing to go. Obviously, we need to get better at throwing the football but running the football and protecting they’ve done a good job.”
The Wildcats have multiple future NFL players in that offensive line room and could again compete for the Joe Moore Award, which is given to the best offensive line in college football. However, don’t sleep on that tight end group.
The Wildcats return their top three players from last year and are led by super senior Justing Rigg. The Springboro, Ohio native has started 23 games in his career and led the team with a 21.05% explosive catch rate last season.
Brenden Bates was a major recruiting win out of Cincinnati Moeller and the redshirt junior looked the part last year despite dealing with some injuries. Expectations are high for the 6-foot-4, 248-pound tight end.
Jordan Dingle was one of the biggest recruiting wins in the class of 2021 and the Bowling Green, Ky. native will get to campus in the summer. Expect the high three-star recruit to place as a true freshman. But the real story is Keaton Upshaw.
The 6-foot-6 and 245-pound redshirt junior tight end oozes potential and looks like a legit NFL prospect. We’ve seen a small dose with 16 receptions over the last two years, but Upshaw appears to be the top candidate to have a breakthrough season for the Wildcats. The hope is that Coen can take advantage of the skill set.
“I think all three of those players are good, solid football players that need to make an impact in our offense,” said Coen. “Tyler Higbee, Gerald Everett were huge pieces of our offense in Los Angeles and I think that these guys are going to be very similar in a lot of ways. Be able to utilize them in the run and the pass game. Motion them, split them out, do some different things with these guys that can create some mismatches.”
It is very apparent that Kentucky is working its way through some inefficiencies at the wide receiver position. Both Allen Dailey Jr. and Bryce Oliver left the program this week. Early in the offseason, Kalil Branham and Akeem Hayes left Lexington. The Wildcats added Big Ten transfers Tre’Von Morgan and Wan’Dale Robinson to provide a much-needed talent influx.
After Josh Ali and Robinson, however, not much is know while the Wildcats have plenty of proven options in Vince Marrow’s tight end room. Coen needs to lean into that and utilize a ton of 12 personnel.
The skill talent grouping that includes one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers can help eliminate the need for a large wideout rotation while providing more snaps for the tight ends. Upshaw is the key to all of this.
The versatile athlete can line up wide into the boundary and give the offense some snaps at X receiver. The Lima, Ohio native could be used in the slot to match up with smaller nickel defenders. The presence of two-tight sets could allow the Wildcats to get an extra blocker at the point of attack to create larger running lanes for Chris Rodriguez Jr.
The passing game must get fixed, but the offense still must realize its strengths. Heading into 2021, this is still a run-first offense that must ride their start tailback running behind an All-American offensive tackle. While doing this, the play-action game has to be utilized and the tight ends are going to play a huge role.
“We get to summer, we can sort of tweak things to really gear towards the personnel that we have,” said Coen.
What that really means is the staff must figure out the best ways to get Upshaw heavily involved in the passing game.