By Ethan Levine
With the hiring of Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops to be UK’s new head football coach, it is the dawn of a new era in the Bluegrass. Stoops, a defensive-minded coach, will have an opportunity to implement his schemes into the defensively-predicated SEC in his first career head coaching gig. But it is who Stoops chooses to bring on as his offensive coordinator that should have fans sitting on the edge of their seats.
The last two years the Cats have been a disaster on offense. In 2o12, UK ranked 118th in the nation in points per game, averaging just 17.9 points per contest; the year before, the offense averaged just 15.8 points per game. So it is evident that, while Stoops may bring a greater talent base and a stronger defense to Lexington, the Cats will need to improve offensively to reach the goals it sets for this new coaching regime.
There are two likely candidates for the offensive coordinator position: Texas Tech offensive coordinator Neal Brown and Florida State offensive coordinator James Coley. Brown had reportedly been in talks with UK when its head coaching position was open, but reports never made it past “preliminary contact” between the two parties. Brown has had success in just under three years with the Red Raiders, and has his offense averaging an astounding 37.8 points per game, good enough for 18th in the nation. Whether Brown could duplicate the success of his spread offense in the treacherous SEC remains to be seen, as he will routinely face opposing defenses far more challenging than anything the Big 12 (Texas Tech’s conference) has to offer. But the potential for the spread to come to Lexington, following three years of screen passes and draw plays, would certainly reinvigorate a sour fan base.
The other potential candidate in addition to Brown is Coley. This move is intriguing as Coley comes from the same school and same coaching staff at Florida State as Stoops is, and the two are familiar with one another. These former Seminole assistants have shown that the pairing of their systems is a recipe for success, as Florida State just completed a 10-2 regular season and will compete in the ACC Championship Game this Saturday. While much of the offense in Tallahassee was commanded by FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher, Coley would surely bring the same pro-style spread to Lexington for the Cats to run. It would be Coley’s first gig as an offensive coordinator, but the pieces are in place for his system to work.
The Cats will welcome their new offensive coordinator with a three-man competition for the starting quarterback job. Redshirt sophomore Maxwell Smith, the team’s starter to begin the 2012 season, missed most of the year with an injured ankle. Taking his place under center were true freshmen Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles, who alternated at quarterback down the stretch for UK. Whitlow is an athletic quarterback with a cannon for an arm, while Smith and Towles are both big, strong pocket passers. Towles was UK’s top recruit a year ago, and has been hyped as the Cats’ best signal caller since Andre Woodson or even Tim Couch. Smith was leading the SEC in passing yards per game at more than 300 a week before his season-ending injury.
Regardless of the quarterback, UK will need to get more aggressive on offense with its new coaching staff, and both Brown and Coley have explosive systems in their arsenals. With its top three running backs and a number of young, athletic receivers returning for the Cats next year, it seems the pieces are in place for this offense to at least take a step toward mediocrity on its quest to becoming an offense opposing teams fear.
Stoops may do wonders as the program’s new head man, and many are optimistic over the first time head coach, but the Cats now must focus on making a splash with its new offensive coordinator, or risk sinking altogether.