LEXINGTON, Ky. — When a defensive-minded head coach finds an offensive coordinator he trusts implicitly, you can see that sparkle in his eye. Kentucky football boss Mark Stoops finally has the look.
Now on his third OC in four years, Stoops’ search for the perfect match was a bit like speed dating. Neal Brown was simply a case of right guy, wrong time. Shannon Dawson wanted to go too fast too soon. Then, at long last, Eddie Gran walked in and swept Stoops off his feet with sweet talk about a commitment to running the football.
“I don’t want to compare and put down other guys,” Stoops told SEC Country, “but for me right now, it is by far the most comfortable I’ve been. I’m extremely comfortable, and that’s a good feeling. The comfort level, without question, affects you.”
It was obvious not having that for three years left Stoops wound tight — and discovering it at long last has put him visibly at ease.
That’s why, with all due respect to Boom Williams’ breakaways and Benny Snell’s bulldozing, Stephen Johnson emerging as far more than a reliable backup quarterback and the young defense growing up, nothing had a greater impact on Kentucky football in 2016 than Gran’s arrival last December.
His extreme competence — and Stoops’ total confidence in him — was the key to the Wildcats’ resurgent 7-5 season and an invitation to Saturday’s TaxSlayer Bowl against Georgia Tech, their first postseason appearance in six years.
“The way we kind of morphed into the offense that we did — that we had to — had [Gran] not had the ability to adapt and to do what we did, we would’ve never won seven games,” Stoops said. “If he would’ve just tried to do what he did at Cincinnati here, we would’ve lost a lot of games.”
The Bearcats threw the ball a lot when Gran was their coordinator from 2013-15. Funny thing is, that was never his intention. As a running backs coach at Ole Miss, Auburn, Tennessee and Florida State in the previous two decades, Gran developed an affinity for pounding the rock.
But Cincinnati got off to a stumbling 3-2 start in his first season there, prompting some soul-searching.
“I went there thinking 11 and 12 personnel,” Gran said, noting formations that use either one back, one tight end and three receivers or one back, two tight ends and two receivers. “That’s my background. That’s who I am. (But) I went back and watched everything we had done, when we were scoring and how it was working, and it was when we were in 10 personnel (one back, no tight end, four receivers). We went back and evaluated and we had six really talented receivers and good quarterbacks. So I went in to coach and said, ‘We need to go no-huddle and we need to roll.’ ”
The Bearcats won six consecutive games after Gran’s tweak, jumping from 254 passing yards per game to 366 during that streak. Cincinnati ranked top-15 nationally in passing the next two seasons.
From crisis to comfort
That flexibility is why Stoops didn’t panic when starting quarterback Drew Barker went down after Kentucky’s 0-2 start this season. Sure, the Wildcats planned to throw a little more, but Gran was a grind-it-out guy at heart and this team was well-equipped to flip that switch.
“Even when it was bad, [Stoops] never flinched,” Gran said. “He didn’t come in and go, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ He knew we were working some things out. So you felt comfortable. Sometimes when you’re a coordinator and you’ve got someone in your ear the whole time, you can ball up. You can be fearful. And if you’re fearful calling plays, it can be detrimental. He’s never been like that.”
In fact, Stoops said he and Gran are so much on the same page that in big games and big moments, like the stunning upset of Louisville to end the regular season, he often switches off his headset when the offensive staff is scheming.
“I want to let them do their job,” he said. “Contrary to what everybody has always said about me before, I stay out of the offense a lot. I know what’s working and what’s not, what my philosophies are — we discuss those things throughout the week — but I really try not to meddle. Because I feel bad if I’m in his ear on the headset talking him out of something and it’s not working.”
Gran rewarded that trust with the offense of Stoops’ dreams: a power running game that can burn defenses with occasional deep passes. Both Williams and Snell had more than 1,000 yards rushing this season — a feat no other Power 5 team accomplished — and Johnson connected on 15 passes of 30-plus yards.
After Barker’s injury, Kentucky went 7-3 and averaged 270.5 rushing yards per game, which would’ve ranked seventh nationally for a full season, and almost 32 minutes in time of possession. That was a huge boost to a defense starting six sophomores and lacking the depth to survive its own offense punting (or even scoring) too quickly.
Unlike past seasons, with Air Raid disciples Brown and Dawson running the offense, Stoops never had to worry that Gran’s offense would put his defense in a bad spot.
“It comes down to trust, and I know him. I know 100 percent, unequivocally, that the bottom line is just winning at any cost,” Stoops said. “And if that means possessing the ball and getting a first down and then punting it, then that’s what he’ll do. Even though we both had a different vision of the style of offense early on, I knew deep down in my heart what the roots are for him: grinding out tough yards, knowing the run game.
“That to me is extremely important, always will be, no matter what your style is. You have to have the ability to run the football and to have that at kind of the core and the root of who you are.”
Why, then, did he first hire two pass-heavy coordinators? It’s complicated. Stoops’ older brothers Mike and Bob are both former defensive coordinators (like him) who hired Air Raid offensive coordinators when they got head-coaching gigs at Arizona and Oklahoma, so it’s a family thing.
And then Mark came to Kentucky, where the Air Raid rose to prominence under Hal Mumme and a young Mike Leach (later Bob’s first OC at Oklahoma) — with Tim Couch at quarterback. Couch was on the search committee that hired Stoops, and it was clear the Wildcats wanted to sound the sirens again.
Mark Stoops hopped on board because, most importantly, there was a major talent gap between UK and the rest of the mighty SEC when he took over before the 2013 season.
“We needed to do something unique, especially early,” Stoops said, “to try to steal some wins until you could get to the point where you could physically play with Georgia. But I will say, in this league, I’m not sure that wide-open style is going to win you games at the level we want to win and be as consistent as we want to be.”
Stoops is quick to point out that he trusted Brown and believes he is a high-level football mind, which Brown’s 10-3 record and bowl victory this season as the head coach at Troy proves. But the UK offense was severely handcuffed by a lack of talent in those first two seasons.
No matter the reasons an Air Raid sequel never took flight in Lexington, Stoops can finally admit this now: “I don’t think I was completely comfortable with it, no.”
Close ties, long relationship
To see him and Gran interact now is to know what it looks like when Stoops is comfortable. They became colleagues, neighbors and friends while working together at Florida State from 2010-12. Stoops ran the Seminoles’ defense and Gran held several titles: running backs coach, offensive coordinator, associate head coach.
“He was in front of the team a lot,” Stoops said, “and you saw the command that he had with the team. And then the details, and the seasoning that he had with recruiting and relationships. I had three different stays in Florida and knew Florida pretty well (but) the first time we go on the road, we go down there and he knows everybody in South Florida.”
That has paid off in this recruiting class, as Kentucky has commitments from seven Sunshine State prospects. But it’s the relationship with his boss that Gran values most — so much so that he’s no longer chasing head-coaching jobs.
“It’s already so hard, if you come to work every day miserable, there’s nothing good about it,” Gran said. “But when you can come and be around good people – I know what he stands for. I know family is important. I’m divorced, so I’m shuffling (kids); if I ever have something with my child or I have to go somewhere, it’s a no-brainer. He doesn’t even have to think twice. Those things are important to me now.”
As is the give and take between a head coach and a coordinator with whom he shares a mutual respect. Both Stoops and Gran, in a joint interview with SEC Country, said they have both become better coaches this season because of the other.
While it’s true that Stoops stays off the headset a lot now during games, “There are times when you’re going and Coach will say, ‘Hey, keep pounding it and doing what you’re doing,’ because he’s got the sense.” The sense, from a defensive coordinator’s perspective, that the other side is about to fold.
“Don’t let them off the hook. Make them prove to me that they can stop this, this and this,” Stoops said. “Scratch where it itches — Hayden Fry.”
That would be his Hall of Fame former coach at Iowa.
“He’s been good,” Gran said. “He’ll say, ‘Hey, let it eat. Go. Keep doing it.’ And he’ll go, ‘Do what you gotta do.’ Well, for me then, I know we’re wide open. Let’s go. It’s full throttle.”