When Mark Stoops decided to change offensive coordinators at the end of last season, he knew Kentucky’s Opening Day opponent in 2016 was going to be Southern Mississippi. What he didn’t know was that Shannon Dawson would land on his feet there, in Hattiesburg.
And now, on Saturday, Stoops has to prepare a game plan designed to stop a USM offense that will be running Dawson’s plays, triggered by strong-armed quarterback Nick Mullens, who some say will be the first QB chosen in the next NFL Draft.
“Of course,” Stoops said at his first weekly news conference. “Because I do have respect for him and he’s a good coach. I wouldn’t have hired him. You guys have seen our offense move at times and I’ve seen it move at times. So he certainly can get you off balance, especially with some of the talent he has around him.”
The Wildcat offense did, indeed, keep opponents off balance at times last year, piling up five victories in their first six games. But then came another six-game losing skid, where it seemed as though the Kentucky offense was off balance – and so was the relationship between head coach and OC.
Hence, the change and the delicious coincidence pitting the two men who this time a year ago were putting together a game plan for Louisiana-Lafayette. Instead of whispering into the ear of Patrick Towles or Drew Barker, Dawson will be exerting his will through Mullens, who’s passed for more than 8,700 yards and 63 touchdowns already in his career. Stoops is impressed.
“(I was) just going back and watching more film prior to coming over here, to see what he did in the bowl game and how accurate he was,” Stoops said. All Mullens did against Washington was connect on 25 of 38 passes for 331 yards and two scores, finishing the season with nearly 5,000 passing yards and 38 TDs. “He’s really a very good football player.”
Thanks to Mullens and the rest of the Golden Eagles, Stoops will have a lot racing through his head on Saturday night. None of it will be about the decision he made to fire his OC last December.
“I don’t have any emotions with facing him at all,” Stoops said. “We had as good a split as you can have. He’s a professional. He handled it the right way. I certainly tried to handle it the very best I could. I don’t want to put words in his mouth. I’m sure it’s different for him than it is for me.”
Maybe. Maybe not.
“Oh, it’s fine. It’s just another game to me,” Dawson said recently. “I mean, I treat them all the same.”
He has to, when it comes to prepping his team. But you couldn’t blame Dawson for celebrating a bit more passionately if he can help engineer an upset of his former employer. And it’s up to Stoops and his defense to figure out a way to stop him.
“He’s a good guy and a good person,” the UK coach said. “We have not talked since he left, but I’m sure someday we’ll run into each other one day on the road recruiting, or at a coaching convention or something and sit down and have a beer and talk. So, I don’t think there’s any big animosity either way.”
You don’t have to tell Stoops that regardless of who’s wearing a headset on the other side of the field, this one is crucial.
“I think there’s a lot of people sitting in this room, and a lot of people that are going to be sitting in the stands that want to see what this team’s all about,” he said. It’s a UK team that has a new, high-octane offense that the USM defenders themselves will have to worry about. Dawson isn’t the only OC anxious to start pushing buttons. Eddie Gran has a lot riding on this one as well.
“We just need to go out there and do what we’ve been doing and have that great focus and attention to detail and be an exciting team,” Stoops said. “I’m excited about that myself because I know we’ll be prepared.”
They already have a pretty good idea of what to expect from the guy calling plays for Southern Miss.