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Kentucky Will Count on Offensive Balance in 2019

By Dave Holcomb
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As much as Kentucky will miss its senior class, replacing Benny Snell is the most impossible task the Wildcats will face in 2019. And it won’t be accomplished with just one offensive weapon from the roster.

Kentucky lost 16 seniors this offseason from its 10-win squad of a year ago. The Wildcats won 10 games in 2018 for the first time since 1977.

But Kentucky’s biggest loss wasn’t even a senior; that was running back Benny Snell, who departed a year early for the NFL. Snell rushed for 1,449 yards, averaging 5.0 yards per carry, and 16 touchdowns in 2018. In three seasons at Kentucky, he rushed for 3,873 yards and posted more than 4,000 yards from scrimmage.

That only begins to suggest how important Snell was for the Wildcats offense. Last year, Snell accounted for more than 33 percent of Kentucky’s offensive yards. Over the last three seasons, Snell accumulated about 32.0 percent of the team’s yardage.

That’s an astonishing amount, especially for a team that went 17-9 during those two years.

As much as Kentucky will miss its senior class, replacing Snell is the most impossible task the Wildcats will face in 2019. And it won’t be accomplished with just one offensive weapon from the roster.

If there’s anyway to spin the departure of Snell in a positive light, it’s the fact Kentucky’s offense will be less reliant on one player this fall. Very few teams stopped Snell, but when opponents held him to under 90 yards rushing, Kentucky’s offense generally struggled.

Against Power 5 competition, the Wildcats went 1-3 when Snell didn’t rush for at least 85 yards. In those games, Kentucky averaged 13.25 points per game. When Snell posted a 100-yard rushing game against Power 5 competition, the Wildcats recorded 30.4 points per contest.

It’s not all that uncommon to see an offense not be able to move the ball when their best player is ineffective. But the best offenses have other weapons to turn to, and Kentucky didn’t really possess that last year.

Snell registered 218 more rushing attempts than any other Kentucky running back last year, but primary backup Asim Rose averaged 6.2 yards per rush and was second on the team with five rushing touchdowns. Rose is expected to receive the first opportunity to be the new backfield starter.

But he shouldn’t be expected to fill the void left from Snell’s departure alone. Rising sophomores Kavosiey Smoke and Christopher Rodriguez Jr., who only received a combined five carries in 2018, appear to be ready for a bigger workload.

3-star prospect and 2019 commit Travis Tisdale could receive significant playing time as a freshman as well. Tisdale may be the fastest back of the group, which would give Kentucky’s offense a much-needed speed element.

The other way Kentucky replaces Snell is with a better passing attack. Quarterback Terry Wilson threw for 145.3 yards per game, which was ranked last among all SEC starting signal callers. As a result, Kentucky was last in passing yards in the conference by a wide margin. Every other team in the SEC except Mississippi State had at least 200 more passing yards than Kentucky, and the Bulldogs had 160 more.

Part of those low numbers was the fact Kentucky focused so much on running the ball with Snell. Wilson only averaged about 20 attempts per game. To his credit, he completed 67.2 percent of his passes while posting 7.0 yards per attempt.

That completion percentage was third-best while his yards per attempt mark was ranked 12th in the SEC. That’s an indication that Kentucky kept most of Wilson’s throws short and safe, deploying a passing attack with the goal of avoiding the big mistake.

Without Snell, Kentucky will have to open up its passing attack more. To do that, expect Wilson to target rising junior wide receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. often this fall.

Bowden may be Kentucky’s best offensive weapon in 2019. Last season, he recorded 67 receptions for 745 yards and five touchdowns playing out of the slot. Bowden should remain in that role and accumulate plenty of touches.

Wilson improving in the passing game is most important, but don’t forget he can also help replace Snell with his legs. Wilson was second on the team with 135 attempts and 547 yards on the ground. If he could post a more efficient 4.1 yards per carry average, that would also help the ground attack.

It’s never fun losing one of the best players in program history, and a program such as Kentucky is never going to be able to reload in recruiting fast enough to replace a departed star with one player.

But with a running back by committee and should the passing game develop, Kentucky’s offense may be balanced enough to avoid a major setback in 2019.