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SHANE SHACKLEFORD: Smith, Cats Struggling on Offense

As I have started several articles, in a former life I was a football coach at several different levels. From then to now, I have always had an affinity to the concepts and positions of offensive football. So when I watch a football game at any level, my attention goes first to the team on offense and then to my favorite position on the field, the quarterback.

As I watched the Kentucky Wildcats get throttled on offense by the South Carolina Gamecock defense Saturday night, I found myself focused on UK quarterback Sawyer Smith and the struggles he was having. They were very noticeable and easy to pick up on.


Now before you think I’m getting ready to pile on the poor kid, who Sunday it was disclosed is playing with a worsening wrist and shoulder injury on his throwing arm, I am not. That’s just not my style. I would rather point out some things that are going on and can be corrected through practice and film study.


I have every confidence that if Smith is healthy in less than two weeks for the Arkansas game, we will see an improved Sawyer Smith. But to get there, Smith must do his due diligence and take the time to improve mentally and physically. I think he will.


If I were UK offensive coordinators Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw, I think the following diagnoses and plans for improvement for Smith could allow him to improve in the short term and help him in the long term.


Diagnosis 1: SEC blowback. Let’s face it. The SEC has caught up with Smith. Although he had success last season at Troy, there is a huge difference between Power Five football and Group of Five football. Smith is facing linemen and linebackers in the shark tank known as SEC defenses that run like running backs and are quick like receivers. Plus there is a film on Smith now from this season, not last season at Troy. The SEC defensive coordinators have a plan on defending Smith. You’re seeing it.


Diagnosis 2: Basic playcalling. Right now, the defensive plan against the Cats is quite simple. Load the box with seven-eight defenders on first and second down to stop the run, blitz the house on third down, and field the Kentucky punt on fourth down. I also know that a lot of BBN is frustrated with offensive coordinator Eddie Gran (this writer included), but right now Gran is hamstrung on what he can call on offense due to the play at quarterback.


Diagnosis 3: Poor quarterback mechanics. In Smith, you have a signal-caller who has all of the classic signs of a struggle; eyes locked in on a single receiver, happy feet in the pocket, and no rhythm at all. As a result, we are seeing throws that flutter by and over receivers, defenders breaking on passes like they were thrown to them, and Smith taking a beating behind a good SEC offensive line who simply cannot block six or seven seconds while Smith holds the ball not confident in where he will deliver it. But to be honest, where does Gran and coach Mark Stoops go right now? A quarterback who has never taken a college snap (Walker Wood) or a true freshman who has never taken a snap either (Anami Gilmore?) Can’t do either of those. Play all-purpose star Lynn Bowden Jr. under center? Let’s discuss that later.


We covered the diagnoses for Smith, now let’s be proactive and come up with a plan for improvement for the embattled Wildcat signal-caller.


Improvement 1: Health assessment. The Cats must know as soon as possible the state of Smith’s health. It’s no secret he is banged up, and placing him on the field with SEC predators in less than good health is a recipe for disaster for Smith and the UK offense. If Smith is not healthy, the Cats must decide how they will play the quarterback position until Smith gets healthy. Do Stoops and Gran play a hybrid quarterback system with Bowden taking snaps along with Wood? If so, do the Cats go to a power run game with occasional play-action passes? Will Bowden be the starter behind center? Those are questions that must be answered among others, but only after a thorough health assessment of Smith.


Improvement 2: Film study and mechanic work. There’s an old coach saying that “the big eye in the sky never lies.” Smith needs film study time. He needs to see his flaws and missteps pointed out by his coaches (and I’m sure they will.) But that’s ok. Two weeks (this bye week and the Arkansas week) is plenty enough time for Smith to see where he is failing and where he must improve. Then after the film, go to the lab and fix the mechanics that are glaringly out of sync.


Improvement 3: Develop a gameplan tailored to Smith. It’s quite obvious that Smith cannot execute the offense tailored made for injured starter Terry Wilson. Their skill sets do not mesh enough to warrant running the same plays. Stoops and Gran need to build a system quickly that utilize Smith’s skills and allows Smith to be comfortable on the field. It’s painfully obvious that neither of those points is being met.


If the Cats can build a quick plan for moving the ball down the field, the chances of a winning season can happen to improve. If not, it will be “Wait Till Next Year” in Lexington again. No one wants that.


SEC Wrapup


Alabama 52, Ole Miss 17. The best team in America is in Tuscaloosa. Again.

Auburn 56, Mississippi State 23. Thank goodness UK doesn’t play War Eagle this year.

Texas A&M 31, Arkansas 27. Hogs QB Nick Starkel was injured in the game. Will it affect the Cats meeting with them in two weeks?

Florida 38, Towson 0. Anyways...

Vanderbilt 24, Northern Illinois 18. The ‘Dores first three games were rated as the toughest in all of FBS. Good to see them win.

Open Last Week. Georgia, Mizzou, LSU, and Tennessee (thankfully.)


SEC This Week


Utah State at No. 5 LSU. The Aggies invade Death Valley. They discover this Death Valley is more threatening than the one out west.

No. 7 Auburn at No. 10 Florida. Gators. War Eagle. The game I will be watching.

Troy at Missouri. The Tigers are quietly putting together a good season.

No. 3 Georgia at Tennessee. If this gets ugly quick, embattled Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt could be fired at halftime.

Vanderbilt at Ole Miss. Dores' head man Derek Mason needs wins badly to hold on to his job in Nashville. This could go a long way to hurt or help him.

Open This Week. Alabama, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Arkansas.


Shane Shackleford is a regional sports columnist from Speedwell, Tenn. You can follow Shane at KySportsStyle.com Magazine, A Sea of Blue, and other local and social media outlets.

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