One thing is certain about Neal Brown’s Air Raid offense: you run, run and run some more in a constant race against the clock to keep the tempo up.
That’s why having athletic, speedy and versatile wide receivers and tight ends is critical to making that offense tick. Although depth at the wideout position isn’t where Kentucky coaches would like it to be this year, there are several athletes on this year’s team whose versatility will be an asset.
Ryan Timmons, a freshman who is traditionally known as a receiver, has been practicing some at running back, and has the ability to play that position if injuries deplete the backfield. His speed and body could make it difficult on the defensive backs trying to cover him.
A full-out position change is not eminent with Timmons, but has already run its course with Ronnie Shields, the junior who was formerly a tight end. He is now listed on the depth chart as a receiver and is spending most of his time in practice at that position, according to Shields himself. The 6-5, 227-pounder certainly had the body to be a tight end, but with Tyler Robinson, Jordan Aumiller and Anthony Kendrick at that position, it was a logjam.
Now, Shields is more of a hybrid player who has the ability to play both positions – something he did in high school as well.
“At tight end, I bring a lot of speed,” he said. “I’m a great route runner and a great pass-receiving tight end. As a receiver, I’m a big body so it makes it harder for a small corner to guard me. It’s a mismatch at both positions.”
In an effort to make that transition to receiver easier, Shields has trimmed his body fat percentage to “about 13 percent” (down from 20 percent). He says it has helped him gain the kind of speed necessary for a wideout in Brown’s offense.
Someone who has similar versatility on the field has been Kendrick. Although he played a lot of receiver in high school, he came to Lexington and bulked up to fit the bill as an SEC tight end.
“I was a true blocking tight end,” Kendrick said. “I never lost the ability to be able to flex out and catch passes. Being a receiver in high school definitely helped me out with my hands and my routes and having some type of speed with the size I have.”
Like Shields, Kendrick could present some mismatches for whoever is guarding him. At 6-3 and 233 pounds, he is almost still in the middle of being a receiver and tight end. His added bulk from his freshman year has given him a tight end’s body with the ability to catch passes and run (fast).
Having guys such as himself within the Air Raid is significant because of the challenges it could present to defenses, according to Kendrick.
“It’s important because it gives us an advantage over other defenses. They’re using linebackers, who are a slower type of guys, and us being fast, bigger guys, it’s just an advantage for us,” he said. “We can spread the field. We can get ourselves open and get other receivers open too.”
Like Shields, Kendrick has been affected by Erik Korem’s high performance program, which has gotten much praise in the offseason for transforming this team’s bodies. Kendrick said he was down to about “235 or 238 pounds” (from 250) and has dropped to about 9.4 percent body fat (from “15 or 16” percent).
“It’s helped me become faster and become stronger,” he said. “It’s also shown when I’m out here playing and practicing. You can tell when I’m coming out of cuts or when I’m running. I feel the difference and I feel that this stuff is actually working.”
Both Shields and Kendrick echoed what many other offensive players have said since Brown and the rest of the coaching staff arrived in Lexington: conditioning has been rough at times. The tempo is fast, and the guys in charge of catching passes probably get the least rest on the team in terms of straight running.
“I still get winded a couple times,” Shields said. “But I know that I’ve got somebody good to come in behind me. I don’t mind going all out and not saving myself.”