Clark Lea on the challenges Kentucky's "explosive" offense presents

On3 imageby:Tyler Thompson09/20/23


Much like Mark Stoops, Clark Lea is a defensive mind, serving as the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame before taking the head coaching job at his alma mater Vanderbilt in 2021. The Commodores lost to the Cats 34-17 in Lea’s first season on West End and got revenge a year later in Lexington, a victory that snapped Vanderbilt’s 26-game SEC losing streak and moved him to tears.

Kentucky’s offense is different than a year ago. Not only is Rich Scangarello gone and Liam Coen back, the Cats have a new quarterback in Devin Leary, running back in Ray Davis, and several new faces on the offensive line. Lea is obviously familiar with Davis, who transferred from Vanderbilt to Kentucky during the offseason, and faced Coen’s offense before Coen left for the Rams following the 2021 season. On today’s SEC Teleconference, he shared what makes Coen’s pro-style offense so unique.

“Obviously, they’re very challenging. They have good skill, first of all, and I think they’ve done a really nice job there of supplementing the roster they have through the [transfer] portal. They’ve added some critical pieces in the line and skill positions, the quarterback position, so they challenge you with their personnel. And obviously, Coach Coen does a great job with the scheme and there are lines of pro-style offense all the way through it. You’ve got reduced formation, shift of motion, multiple tight ends, O-line in different locations to do different things.”

“The challenge defensively is, first of all, understanding how they’re using formation to create space to get you in certain leverages to find open windows to throw the ball. How they’re moving you with shifts and motions to try to establish run game and leverage in the run game, I think they’re really good at that. And then there’s some creative ways just to get the ball in the hands of their playmakers too.”

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Ray Davis gives Kentucky’s offense another dimension

One of those playmakers is Davis, who ran all over the Cats as a Commodore last year, finishing with 126 yards and a touchdown. As a Wildcat, Davis has been stellar, totaling 236 yards and three rushing touchdowns on 33 carries along with 143 yards and two receiving touchdowns on nine receptions. The most exciting play of the season so far is Davis’ 58-yard touchdown catch-and-run on a busted play vs. Akron, which was No. 7 on SportsCenter‘s Top 10 Plays last Saturday. During his turn on the call, Mark Stoops said Davis gives Kentucky’s offense another dynamic dimension.

“Ray has been a very good player for us, very consistent. He gives us that strong, physical style that we’re looking for but he can also make some people miss, which has been evident by the explosive runs that he’s had and pass catches as well, catching runs. He’s made a big difference for us.”

Obviously, facing your former team would be a huge distraction for most players. Thus far this week, Davis has said all the right things, telling reporters, “It’s not Ray Davis vs. Vanderbilt, it’s Kentucky Football vs. Vanderbilt.” Stoops seems confident Davis will handle Saturday as best he can.

“I’m sure it will be a different challenge for him this week,” Stoops said. “He’s just got to stay within himself and play the game like he knows how to play. It was quite aggravating for myself to sit there and watch last year’s film and see what he did against us and how well he played.”

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Kentucky must clean up execution to reach offensive potential

Vanderbilt already has four games under its belt, beating Hawaii and Alabama A&M before losing back-to-back road games at Wake Forest and UNLV. Lea said that while his team has faced several different styles of offense thus far, Kentucky’s is different because of scheme and talent.

“This would be a little more traditional but the things that make it complex are everything that I just said and when you’re doing it with good personnel, you really have to be structured and disciplined defensively and you’ve got to know what you’re doing too because if you don’t, they can create explosives and play keep away from you and that can make for a frustrating game.”

We’ve seen that explosiveness in glimpses so far, but penalties and mistakes have prevented the Cats from reaching their full potential. Stoops mentioned Jager Burton‘s snap issues and holding penalty that brought back Anthony Brown-Stephens‘s touchdown vs. Akron as examples.

“We’ve just got to, with our style and the way — we’re a pro-style and the number of plays and all those things, we really can’t squander opportunities. With the play clock the way it is, and with our style, the game goes relatively fast. You’re not getting a ton of possessions so you’ve got to maximize those.”

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