Balance is the goal for Kentucky’s offense with new offensive coordinator Liam Coen. He understands how well Kentucky has run the football in recent years and returns a potential star running back in Chris Rodriguez and All-American tackle in Darian Kinnard. He also knows Kentucky needs to add some sparkle to the offense by being able to stretch the field with a passing attack.
“Balance is the key word. They have done a phenomenal job of running the ball here and we need to continue to do that and be physical up front,” Coen, who left the Los Angeles Rams to join Mark Stoops’ staff, said. “Now how do we marry the run, pass, play-action and all that stuff and give the quarterbacks and receivers high level completions and explosive plays. Our offense will be more similar to what the Rams did. We are not just going to drop back and pass all the time.”
One change he’s trying to implement is putting quarterbacks under center rather than aways in the shotgun. Problem is Beau Allen and Joey Gatewood, the top two quarterbacks going into spring practice, cannot really remember the last time they took a snap under center.
“We are going to try it and see where we go. If they can not handle it I am not going to try and fit a square peg into a round hole but there are a lot of things I like to do that come from under center,” Coen said.
Allen, the redshirt freshman from Lexington, says being under center allows his “feet to be quicker” and that has made him feel faster and more agile during offseason workouts. He also says the view from under center as opposed to being in the shotgun formation is not that different.
“You can still look around and see what you have to do. It’s pretty similar. You are just a little closer to the line of scrimmage,” Allen said.
Gatewood said he’s had to adjust to being under center but is getting more comfortable daily.
“I feel good with it. I am getting more confident with it every day,” Gatewood said.
Gatewood, who transferred to UK from Auburn and played sparingly last year, is learning to appreciate what Coen is teaching him even though this is his third offensive coordinator and third offensive system in three years in college. He says seeing what Coen sees from his perspective is “eye-opening” to him.
“He sees things I didn’t see at first,” Gatewood said. “I like his way. I keep gaining knowledge from his game that I can implement in my game. I know all our guys are really excited for this opportunity with him.”
Coen tries to appreciate and understand what his quarterbacks are seeing and feeling.
“A lot of things go into playing that position that most people do not see. It’s not an excuse but the reality is there’s just a lot to playing the position,” Coen said.
Coen grew up in a “football house” in Rhode Island where his father was a Division III college football coach. He threw for over 5,000 yards and 66 touchdowns in high school.
If Coen was not at a football game, he was watching football on TV or film. His father had films and books on successful offenses, including the spread offense run by former UK coaches Hal Mumme and Mike Leach. Quarterback Tim Couch was on some of those films during the “Air Raid” era at UK.
“Tim Couch, I will do anything to get one of him. One might be here hopefully,” Coen laughed and said. “He was so special to watch and it was so much fun to watch him play. Heck, I wanted to be Tim Couch when I played. Tim reached out to me when I got the job.”
Coen is always the quarterbacks coach as well as the offensive coordinator. That means Allen, Gatewood and the other quarterbacks spend a lot of time with Coen daily.
“I think it just creates a stronger bond and is really a big strength,” Gatewood said. “I am just excited to work with him and expand my game. Just hearing him teach and explain it is different. I get to work with him every day. I get to pick his brain every day and absorb everything. It is go time.”
If Stoops is right, the early coaching is paying off. He praised the “accuracy” of the quarterbacks after UK’s third spring practice last week.
“They know where to go with the football. Our completion percentage is very high, very few drops, very few balls on the ground,” Stoops said. “I am very pleased with what I am seeing offensively.”
Stoops is spending time just like the offensive players learning Coen’s system after having Eddie Gran as his offensive coordinator the last five years.
“It’s exciting for me to learn the system and see what they are doing, too,” Stoops said.
Allen said there is a lot to learn in Coen’s playbook and he studies it daily. However, he says while a lot of things may look different, many things are the same to the players.
“The struggle and the grind has been fun so far,” Allen said. “We are trying to marry the run game and pass game to keep defenses off balance. So even if things look different in this offense a lot of the things are going to be the same.”
Being among the 24 student-athletes selected for induction into the 2021 class of the Frank G. Ham Society of Character means a lot to Kentucky juniors Renee Abernathy and All Stumler.
The Society of Character annually honors UK athletes who have shown an extraordinary commitment to academic excellence, athletic participation, personal development, career preparation and serving as a role model.
“It is such an honor. It’s a very big deal in UK athletics to be in this group. I am just really proud of myself for being inducted as a junior,” said Abernathy, a human health services major who plans to be a physician.
Abernathy is a starting outfielder on UK’s softball team and teammates Mallory Peyton, Lauren Johnson and Grace Baalman were also selected for induction.
“Coach (Rachel) Lawson does a really good job bringing people to the team that also have high hopes for their careers and strive to be good people all around,” Abernathy said. “Softball is not 100% of our lives. We are working to develop our futures and our team in general prioritizes character, leadership skills, future careers and softball.”
Stumler has been a standout for the highly ranked UK volleyball team again this year. She also has two teammates — Lauren Tharp and Cameron Scheitzach — joining her on the induction list.
“I was certainly not expecting it,” Stumler, an elementary education major, said. “We got the application back when we were in quarantine and I was in Florida with my family. I thought it was be so cool to be picked and then I got the email saying I was selected. I looked at the list of awesome people being inducted and it just hit me what an even bigger honor it was.
“The older you get it is less about what you do on the court and more about off the court things, how you give back and how you give to other people.”
Kentucky softball is 23-2 going into its SEC home opening series against Alabama this weekend while UK volleyball is 17-1 and leading the SEC going into its final two regular-season matches this week against Alabama.
As Kentucky volleyball continues to win year after year, has that put more pressure on recruiting or made recruiting easier for coach Craig Skinner?
“We are very excited about our (20)21 class. We have done our job there but you never know until they sign,” Skinner said. “The advantages are more doors are opened and we are talking with more people in different parts of the country than we have before.”
Kentucky has become an annual SEC title contender, top 20 team and NCAA Tournament participant under Skinner. This season UK is 17-1.
“The better you get, the bigger ego you get and go after the cream of the crop of recruits and then the competition is stiffer to get them,” Skinner said. “You need great players, but you also need the right players. I don’t think we will ever shy away from the fundamentals we use to recruit.”
Whatever Skinner and coaches of other UK women’s sports are doing, it certainly is working. The only Division I school that is nationally ranked in the top 25 in women’s basketball, women’s indoor track, softball, women’s swimming and volleyball is Kentucky.
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops regularly makes himself available to media members but also allows media access to his his coordinators and other assistant coaches.
“You don’t get to get to these positions without being able to handle yourself. It doesn’t mean any of us are perfect. We all know we’re not. We’re going to make mistakes, but I don’t worry about that with (offensive coordinator) Liam (Coen) or (new running backs coach) John Settle, or any of our guys. I really don’t. I think you know that I’m not that type of control freak,” Stoops said.
Not every Southeastern Conference football coach allows as much access to staff members.
“The fact Stoops allows staff members to talk to media is something so foreign to media at schools that cover teams like LSU and Alabama it blows my mind,” said Ron Higgins, managing editor of Tiger Rag. “Covering LSU, we only get the coordinators maybe once in preseason and once before a bowl game because the bowls have in their contracts that coordinators must appear at a press conference.
“You have to beg SIDS to get an actual position coach to write a feature on a player. It’s like covering sports in the Kremlin.”
Susan Lax, director of athletics communications and public relations at UK, handles football staff and player interview requests as well as scheduling regular media opportunities. She credits Stoops for his willingness to allow media access.
“I think having assistants available also helps them in their journey to be head coaches. Speaking to the media is part of it,” Lax said. “As long as the coaches are on the same page it should never be an issue.”
Just before the pandemic hit a little over a year ago author Jamie Vaught released a 256-page paperback book: “Chasing the Cats: A Kentucky Basketball Journey.”
Now the book is being re-introduced during March Madness at various bookstores with the impact of the pandemic decreasing.
“I don’t think this re-introduction has ever been done in our lifetime as the last pandemic was in 1918,” Vaught said.
This is Vaught’s fifth book — and first in 16 years. This book is filled with profiles of UK personalities such as Jack “Goose” Givens, Kenny Walker, Jeff Sheppard, Kevin Grevey and coach John Calipari along with ESPN analyst Dick Vitale and former LSU coach Dale Brown.
The book is available at major bookstores in Kentucky and surrounding states as well as online at AcclaimPress.com, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million and other outlets.
“I can’t wait to meet the Wildcat fans again face-to-face,” Vaught, who only got to do a few book signings in 2020 before the pandemic hit, said.
It’s an easy read with each chapter/personality profile having its own story. With no NCAA Tournament for UK this year, it’s a way UK fans can relive some past heroics by the Cats.
“We are very pleased with Jamie’s book,” publisher Doug Sikes of Missouri-based Acclaim Press said. “The book already has had good reviews and you can google to find out.”
Quote of the Week: “Both of those guys have done it a little different. They did it with one-and-done players and John Calipari, with the young players, is the best coach in the game. He understands how to coach young players. It takes a lot of patience,” Iona coach Rick Pitino on Kentucky and Duke both missing the NCAA Tournament.
Quote of the Week 2: “I am so excited for these athletes. They have worked so hard to keep themselves at a high level all year. Mary earning athlete of the year two straight seasons in an impressive accomplishment,” UK rifle coach Harry Mullins on national champion Mary Tucker and Will Shaner each earning three first-team All-America honors.
Quote of the Week 3: “He’s always every day getting one% better. Works extremely hard. The guys respect him. You can’t spend anytime around him and not be impressed about him as an individual, as a person. And on the field, I really expect a big year out of him. I think you’re going to see him be an impact guy,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops on senior defensive lineman Josh Paschal.