Liam Coen wants to clean up UK’s turnovers


Kentucky offensive coordinator Liam Coen looks over to Kentucky assistant head coach Vince Marrow during an open practice in Lexington, Ky., Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Clubb)

Barkley Truax

Kentucky has 1,083 yards — and five turnovers under Liam Coen’s new offense heading into week three.

Through the first two weeks of the season, Kentucky has been trying to figure out their offensive identity under Coen’s new style. The new offensive coordinator addressed the fact that he needed his running backs to step up after week one’s 400-yard plus passing performance. They delivered in week two with 341 rushing yards — a versatility that fans are clamoring over.

“That was something that definitely was nice to see our guys win the line of scrimmage — do it in a manner of which there was no contest — and it wasn’t even close,” Coen said. “That’s what you want. You want to be able to run the football when we want to be able to do it and throw it absolutely when we want to, but also when we need to.

Coen called 26 pass plays Saturday night against Missouri, though his team only got 18 off due to sacks, scrambles, etc. He prefers to live in the 25-30 passing-call mark and definitely didn’t expect to run the football over 50 times.

With the heavy load placed on the running back room, fumbles are bound to happen, which was the case, especially for Chris Rodriguez Jr. last weekend fumbling twice at the goal line. Coen said the point of emphasis in practice Tuesday was ball security — every skill player went through circuit drills focused on holding onto the football.

“If we clean that part up, you feel like we played a pretty clean game,” he said. Coen chalks the fumbles up to the relaxation players get knowing they’re about to break the plane. He calls that situational football. 

“[Rodriguez Jr.] has been put in that situation — now we can learn from that situation,” Coen said. “Thank God that didn’t cost us the ball game, right? And he knows that, but he’s been there now and we’ll see what he does in the situation again, but I have full confidence in him.”

Coen isn’t the type of coach that relegates his players for having bad games. He said it’s the coaches jobs to act more as caddies on game day. Coen has been called a player-first coach in the past; he said he made some bad calls, forced bad plays but he didn’t get in trouble — so why should his players? 

“We’ve got to keep our best players positive, keep them upbeat,” he said. “And that was the goal. He had the hot hand and he was doing a pretty great job all game, he just had a couple of bad plays.”

While they’re working on cleaning up the fumbles in the rush game, Kentucky quarterback Will Levis has been prone to throwing lasers in the middle of the field, proving too hot for his receivers to handle thus far. 

Levis has thrown one interception in each game so far, both of which came from the same play call with his receiver breaking free in the middle of the field. Both passes hit his receivers in the hands, bounced right off and gave the defender the chance to make a play. 

On Saturday’s interception against Missouri, the Tigers gave Kentucky a different look. Than ULM did week one. Kentucky was trying to give Kavosiey Smoke a one-on-one opportunity — Coen said Missouri did a great job of masking man coverage and playing zones, in turn forcing Levis to look elsewhere on the coverage read, checking it down to Isaiah Cummings late and behind. Coen said those are the things they’re trying to clean up and emphasis heading into the game against Chattanooga.

“I thought he did a really good job of running the whole operation,” Coen said about his quarterback. “I mean, we probably have about five or six audibles in the game plan. And he handled all those great.”

Despite being heavy favorites going into this game, Coen and company are taking the Chattanooga match up as seriously as an SEC opponent.

“It’s a little different from week one, this opponent has a good defense,” Coen said. “They were the number six ranked defense in FCS football last year. They played together, they’ve been in the same scheme now for a number of years. [The] defensive coordinator does a really good job. They play sound, they play hard.”

Chattanooga’s defensive coordinator, Lorenzo Ward, Kentucky fans will remember from his time as interim head coach at Louisville in 2018 after the mid-season firing of Bobby Petrino. Ward has a storied coaching career, making stops on Frank Beamer’s Virginia Tech squad in 1999 before taking his football philosophies to the NFL’s Oakland Raiders before making home in the SEC with stints coaching at Arkansas and South Carolina until 2015.

“It’s a little bit different from the scheme we just saw, which was very aggressive in the box doing some different things,” Coen said. “So we need to execute at a high level and yeah, [it would] be great to get some [younger] guys in. But at the end of the day, it’s really about us executing and it’s one of those games similar to ULM in that way where it’s more about us than them.”