Maxwell Smith prepares for a snap against UofL. (Photo by Jon Hale)
It’s hard for fans, players and UK coaches to take much solace in the Wildcat’s season-opening 32-14 loss to Louisville, but the play of the offense has provided at least some hope.
UK gained 373 total yards, including 280 yards in the air and 93 on the ground, against the Cardinals. The Wildcats gained that many yards only twice in 2011 — against Jacksonville State, which plays in Division I-AA, and Mississippi, which finished last in the Southeastern Conference.
The 280 passing yards were more than any 2011 game except the win against Mississippi, when UK totaled 283 yards in the air.
At the heart of the offensive improvement was the fast-paced, no-huddle attack and the play of sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith.
“That’s what we want to be: up-tempo, getting the ball into playmakers hands, quick gain, quick gain, then throw the ball down the field.” said UK head coach Joker Phillips after the loss.
Smith completed passes to 11 different receivers. Seven players caught multiple passes in the game.
Senior wide receiver La’Rod King led the way with eight catches for 77 yards and one touchdown. Redshirt freshman receiver Daryl Collins caught seven passes for 64 yards in his first collegiate game. He missed the 2011 season after dislocating his knee cap late in fall camp.
“I didn’t think I was going to play like that, but I actually came out there and played how I usually do,” Collins said. “I felt like I was playing at 100 percent.”
Spreading the ball around to multiple receivers was also a benefit of the newfound offensive success. In 2011, the most receivers that caught at least one pass in a game was 10 in the loss to Florida. Five or fewer receivers caught at least one pass in seven different games in 2011.
Smith threw 50 passes on Sunday. That’s 16 more than the highest total from last season — 44 in the loss to Florida. UK threw fewer than half that many passes in five games in 2011.
Knowing a pass could come your way at any time helps keep receivers focused, Collins said.
“You never know who Max is going to hit,” he said. “It’s just a decision. It’s like a clock in his head. He might read off somebody and read to you. If you aren’t paying attention, you might miss it or it might hit you.”
UK is able to run the no-huddle in part because of Smith’s strengths, said offensive coordinator Randy Sanders.
“The thing that he has the ability to do that lines itself to (the system) is he sees things well,” Sanders said. “He has the ability to get the ball out fast, and he’s phenomenally accurate.”
While the UK passing game looked better Sunday than at any point in 2011, it still didn’t feature much of a deep game. The longest completion of the day went for 22 yards to Collins on a crossing route.
The UK tailbacks caught eight passes Sunday and were targeted a total of 13 times with almost all of those receptions coming on check-down plays at or near the line of scrimmage.
“You never see the back going down the field making plays, but in this offense we have a lot of designed vertical routes that we wanted to throw down the field and you didn’t see any of them caught,” Phillips said. “So naturally, our quarterback’s next read is to drop it off to the tailback and allow those guys to go make a play for us.”
UK has had success throwing to running backs in the Joker Phillips and Rich Brooks era. On Tuesday, Phillips noted the success of former UK tailback Rafael Little, who caught 131 passes for 1,324 yards in his career, with similar check-down receptions. Little actually lead UK in receiving in 2005 with 46 catches for 449 yards.
“It’s hard to throw it to the sticks,” Phillips said. “What’s the defense going to do? Sit at the sticks.
“We have to get it to our backs. CoShik (Williams) coming out of the backfield, Raymond (Sanders) out of the backfield matched up on-one-one with linebackers. Those things give us a chance to make bigger plays really than the wide receivers.”
The ability of Smith to make find receivers even when his primary reads are not open helps make the no-huddle offense successful.
“I do think Max proved a little bit today,” Sanders said after Sunday’s loss. “I think he proved something to me. I hope he proved something to a lot of the UK fans. I think he proved something to his teammates.”
Boyd named a starter at wide receiver
Senior wide receiver Aaron Boyd signed with UK as a highly touted recruit and the younger brother of a former starting Wildcat quarterback, but little went the way he or fans had hoped in his first four years on campus.
Entering his redshirt senior season, Boyd had caught six passes for 51 yards. Three of those receptions came in one game during his freshman season. A myriad of off-the-field issues also often earned him a spot in the coaches’ doghouse.
On Sunday, Boyd tied a career high with three catches for 36 yards against Louisville. When the new depth chart was released Tuesday, Boyd was listed as a starter at one of the three wide receiver positions.
“I’m so proud of Aaron,” Phillips said Tuesday. “Aaron stayed the course. He’s grown up a lot. He’s a lot more mature. He handles his business the right way. I’m so proud of him that he got an opportunity not only to play, but to make some plays for us. He will be a starter, no doubt.”
Boyd admitted his first four years on campus were difficult at times, but he said he was happy to finally contribute on the field.
“I stopped before the game this past week, and that’s all I could think about: just coming in and making plays and trying to help my team,” he said. “I’m grateful for this opportunity. I’m excited to try to keep it going.”
Boyd also appreciates the patience shown by Phillips.
“I have a newfound appreciation for that man because he stayed with me through thick and thing,” Boyd said. “He’s given me the opportunity.”