John Clay: There will be some NFL-style scheming Saturday night when Kentucky plays Missouri

By John Clay

Saturday's Kentucky-Missouri matchup includes an X-and-O battle between former NFL minds.

When UK Coach Mark Stoops went looking for a new offensive coordinator last winter, he hired Los Angeles Rams assistant coach Liam Coen. When Missouri Coach Eli Drinkwitz went looking for a new defensive coordinator last winter, he hired former NFL defensive coordinator and head coach Steve Wilks.

Saturday night at Kroger Field, the two go head-to-head in an important early-season matchup between two teams with aspirations of challenging twin powers Georgia and Florida in the SEC East.

We know about Coen, the 35-year-old former Rams assistant wide receivers and assistant quarterbacks coach. In his first game as UK's play-caller, the Cats produced 554 total yards in a 45-10 victory over visiting ULM.

As for Wilks, he's a 52-year-old Appalachian State alumnus who had various assistant coaching jobs in college before jumping to the NFL's Chicago Bears with Lovie Smith in 2006. He was an assistant head coach at Carolina during the Panthers' Super Bowl season in 2015.

Hired as the Arizona Cardinals' head coach in 2018, Wilks lasted one 3-13 season. He was the Cleveland Browns' defensive coordinator in 2019. He sat out the 2020 campaign before being named Mizzou's defensive coordinator on Jan. 21, 2021.

With Wilks as head coach, the Cardinals played the Rams twice in 2018, Coen's first season in Los Angeles. Los Angeles won both games — 34-0 in L.A. and 31-9 at Arizona.

"Aggressive, ton of man coverage," is Coen's memory of those matchups. "They had some really good players, Budda Baker, Patrick Peterson. They had some guys that could really play in the secondary, that could play man coverage, fly around. They want to get their safeties in the box. They want to try and stop the run and challenge you on the perimeter to throw the football and challenge you to win one-on-one matchups."

In 2019, Wilks' Browns led the defending NFC champion Rams 6-3 at the half before losing 20-13. According to Coen, Wilks played some 6-1 defensive fronts in that game, the same looks Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots used to beat the Rams 13-3 in the Super Bowl.

"He threw some wrinkles at us in Cleveland in 2019 we'll be ready for," Coen said Tuesday.

Last Saturday, in Wilks' Missouri debut, Mizzou was actually outgained 475-468 in its 34-24 win. The victors did intercept two CMU passes, however, and recorded nine sacks, the most of any FBS team the first week of play.

"They were heavy dose of man coverage in his first game," UK Coach Mark Stoops said Monday. "Very aggressive bunch of guys at the line of scrimmage, so we're going to have to win some one-on-ones."

"What his defense does is it creates tight-window throws because he plays so much man coverage," Coen said.

Both Coen and Wilks have had time to prepare

Here's another twist: With such a big early game on the schedule, both coaches have no doubt spent the summer scheming for the other.

"They've got to have some things ready for us, right?" Coen said. "They've had a lot of time to prepare as have we for them. I've got to believe that they're ready to go and have some things that are unscouted looks that we need to be ready for and be ready to adjust."

Coen said the same was true last week against ULM, which had a new head coach, a new defensive coordinator and 62 new players on the roster. Meanwhile, Missouri is a much better team with much better players. And that's a challenge Coen said he's looking forward to Saturday night.

"Especially to coach against Steve Wilks, a guy that has been in the profession and the NFL so long," said UK's offensive coordinator. "Ton of respect for him and what he does on defense and the way those guys fly around and play. Those guys play their tails off at Missouri on defense."

Steve Wilks' coaching career

— Johnson C. Smith (1995-96)

— Savannah State (1997-99)

— Illinois State (2000)

— Appalachian State (2001)

— East Tennessee State (2002)

— Bowling Green (2003)

— Notre Dame (2004)

— Washington (2005)

— Chicago Bears (2006-08)

— San Diego Chargers (2009-11)

— Carolina Panthers (2012-17)

— Arizona Cardinals head coach (2018)

— Cleveland Browns (2019)


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