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Kentucky's offense was built on the run last season, but is that still a sound strategy?

Kentucky football: Wildcats run game suffering steep drop from last season

We tackle the best question asked by Kentucky fans every day. If you’d like to submit a question, tweet to Kyle Tucker here and Joe Mussatto here. Look for the Question of the Day every Monday through Friday. 

It hasn’t quite been like fitting a square peg into a round hole, but Kentucky’s run-first identity from last year has carried over into the first half of this season despite different personnel on the offensive line and in the backfield. As a result, the production on the ground has decreased. 

And that brings us to the Kentucky Question of the Day. Kevin Faris @KevinWFaris asks: “Will this OL ever be good enough for UK to be the rushing offense that Stoops envisions?” 

When we took suggestions for the Tuesday question of the day, Kevin wasn’t the only one to bring up some form of that question. It’s actually one that Kentucky coach Mark Stoops answered in his Monday news conference. 

“We haven’t been as efficient as we need to be,” Stoops said of the run game. “Do we feel certain we can find that? Yeah. We have to be more efficient than we’ve been. There’s no excuses. We just have to get better in a lot of areas. Running it and having some balance is critically important. That opens up some of our RPOs and throws and things like that.”

Stoops finished his response by saying the Wildcats “are just a little bit off.”

Comparing a seven-game sample size to Kentucky’s 13 games last season isn’t the surest way of showing Kentucky’s regression, but the numbers show a significant drop off. Kentucky was third in the SEC last season, averaging 234 rushing yards per game. This year the Wildcats are 10th in the SEC with 135 rushing yards per game. That decline of nearly 100 rushing yards per game has been covered up by a better passing game and stronger defensive performances.

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But the rushing woes were as apparent as ever in Kentucky’s 45-7 loss to Mississippi State. Benny Snell rushed 7 times for 18 yards — the worst output of his career. Second-team back Sihiem King had 24 yards on 5 carries.

Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran often points out that rushing struggles can’t be blamed on just one group, whether it be the running backs or the offensive line. And considering what Kentucky lost from last season, the decrease in rushing production makes sense.

The offensive line is without Jon Toth, a four-year starter at center. Cole Mosier, who would’ve started at left tackle, was lost to an ACL tear in his right knee in fall camp. Guard Ramsey Meyers decided not to come back for his senior season. And on top of those permanent departures, Nick Haynes’ playing time has been extremely limited as he fights to keep his weight up. Left tackle Landon Young was banged up at Mississippi State as was guard/tackle George Asafo-Adjei.

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Now move to the running back group. Snell is still back there as the workhorse. He’s second in the SEC in rushing attempts and is averaging 77 yards per game, a slight decline from the 84 yards he averaged last season. But gone are Boom Williams and Jojo Kemp, who combined for 1,519 rushing yards a season ago. That three-man backfield from a year ago doesn’t exist this season. It’s just been Snell and King. Redshirt freshman A.J. Rose, the third-team back, had just 1 carry before he was inserted in garbage time last Saturday.

The lack of running production on Saturday is probably why senior receiver Blake Bone said Kentucky would be “un******* stoppable” if it “threw the rock.” That won’t likely be the case, and Stoops made sure to remind us all that this is a run-first team.

“We’re not built to drop back and throw the ball all over the yard,” Stoops said Monday.

That may very well be true, but it’s not yet evident if the Wildcats can establish the same run game that propelled them last season.