It was on the bus ride over to Commonwealth Stadium that Joker Phillips made his decision to put a jolt into the Big Blue Nation one Saturday afternoon in 2007.
Throughout the pre-season, Kentucky’s young offensive coordinator had been talking up the weapons at his disposal and he did, indeed, have an impressive arsenal. Quarterback Andre’ Woodson, wide receivers Keenan Burton, Stevie Johnson, Demoreo Ford and Dicky Lyons; tight end Jacob Tamme and a three-headed monster of an offensive backfield in Rafael Little, Tony Dixon and Alfonso Smith.
So as the team bus motored from the motel to the ballyard, Phillips decided on a flashy start against Opening Day opponent Eastern Kentucky: UK’s first offensive play of the season would be the bomb. And it turned out to be Da Bomb.
With his team on its own 49-yard line, on UK’s first offensive play from scrimmage, Woodson took the snap, faked a handoff and looked deep. He saw Lyons streaking past EKU defensive backs and lofted a perfect spiral. It went for a 51-yard touchdown strike, the first of seven Wildcat TDs that day.
And it sent a message to the UK faithful: This team can score – a lot, and in a lot of ways. The ’07 Cats went on to set records when it came to offensive firepower.
Liam Coen is Kentucky’s new OC and if spring and summer scrimmages are any indication, throwing deep will be a staple of the offense he brought from Los Angeles. Whether or not it will be as productive as the one Phillips coordinated 14 seasons ago, we’ll find out beginning Saturday.
Offensive fireworks were supposed to be what Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw carried with them down I-75 south in December of 2015, when Mark Stoops hired his former Florida State coaching colleague away from Cincinnati. After all, the two had helped the Bearcats re-write the UC record books.
Under Gran/Hinshaw in 2015, Cincinnati ranked fourth nationally in passing offense with 373 yards per game; fifth in total offense (559.4 ypg) and 24th in scoring offense (36.1 ppg), setting 18 school records on the way. UC hung up an incredible 720 yards on Memphis that season (620 through the air), with QB Hayden Moore passing for 557.
That’s why it was so hard to believe Stoops had to fire both at the end of last season, as Kentucky had sunken to the bottom of the Southeastern Conference (and most of Division I football) when it came to passing offense. And it wasn’t entirely the fault of the co-coordinators; circumstance played a major role.
The first two quarters of the 2016 season opener against Southern Mississippi seemed to be a glorious preview of things to come, much like that first play Phillips dialed up against EKU in ’07. Drew Barker, the QB who seemed to be the perfect triggerman for their offense, led Kentucky to a 35-17 halftime lead thanks to three TD bombs – one covering 72 yards to Jeff Badet and two (43 and 53 yards) to Garrett “Juice” Johnson.
Unfortunately, the UK defense surrendered a 71-yard scoring strike to future NFL quarterback Nick Mullens with 22 seconds left in the half, shifting momentum squarely to the SMU sideline. The Golden Eagles finished up the comeback in the second half, blanking the Wildcats’ offense in a 44-35 win.
The following week came a 45-7 beatdown at Florida; the most notable play being one that all but ended Barker’s career. He went down with a back injury, giving way to backup Stephen Johnson, a junior-college transfer not exactly known to have a cannon for an arm.
Barker started the next game, against New Mexico State, but almost immediately aggravated the injury and limped off the field. UK fans saw their starting QB take off in a golf cart – never a good sign.
NMSU was completely overmatched coming into the game and Johnson ended up with his most productive passing game as a Wildcat, throwing for 310 yards and connecting with tight end CJ Conrad for three scores. But Gran and Hinshaw knew their offensive plans for the future had been dashed.
The aerial attack was designed for Barker, not Johnson, who was a gutty, capable leader if not the second coming of Dan Marino. They quickly steered the offense toward Boom Willams, Benny Snell and Jojo Kemp, who carried the Cats to their first bowl game under Stoops.
The following season, it was Johnson again starting in place of Barker, triggering an offense heavy on Snell and sparse when it came to passing, although Johnson did throw three TD passes in a heartbreaking, controversial loss at Florida. And it was Johnson who shook off a second-half injury and came back to lead Kentucky on a 72-yard scoring drive, himself diving into the end zone for the winning TD with 33 seconds left.
Terry Wilson, another juco transfer, took over at quarterback in 2018. Gran and Hinshaw still didn’t have the right fit for the high-powered attack at UC. Instead, they took advantage of Wilson’s ability as a runner and installed a run-pass option attack. Wilson was at his best in an upset victory at Florida and spent much of the season handing off to Benny Snell, on his way to a record-setting season of his own as the Cats rang up 10 wins.
The 2019 season saw the UK offensive brain trust scrambling again, as Wilson went down with a knee injury in the second game against Eastern Michigan. His backup, Sawyer Smith, looked like a capable thrower as he led the Cats to a near-upset of Florida. But in that game he suffered a fractured wrist, tackling a Gator who had picked off one of his passes.
Two weeks later, in the final minutes of a loss at South Carolina, it was Lynn Bowden taking snaps against the Gamecocks. There would be no comeback victory that night but what followed was nothing short of incredible as Gran/Hinshaw dove into the playbook – the pages way in the back – and re-vamped the Kentucky offensive attack.
The Cats won six of their next eight, including a 45-13 drubbing of Louisville and a thrilling win over Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl. Gran was the talk of the SEC and Hinshaw had molded yet another backup into a QB who could win in the SEC.
You know what happened after that, in 2020. COVID, a 10-game SEC schedule Wilson struggled with an offense that averaged less than 22 points per game and a passing attack that was one of the worst in the country.
So Stoops said goodbye to the tandem that, in the last five seasons, helped Kentucky go 37-26 (20-22 in the SEC). Before they arrived, UK had won just 12 of 36 (4-20 in the SEC).
There was improvement on defense and special teams as well, but Gran and Hinshaw, the co-coordinators, had helped the Cats roll with a variety of punches that robbed them of any opportunity to display the offensive attack they had created in the Queen City.
Now it’s Coen with the new scheme and yet another transfer starting behind center. Here’s hoping Will Levis can stay healthy enough to give the Big Blue Nation a true look at the offense of the immediate future.
Maybe his first play will be Da Bomb.