Neal Brown Q&A: Kentucky's offensive coordinator on recruiting, QBs and more
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops wanted to bring in a proven offensive mind when he took over the Wildcats before last season. That's why Stoops hired Neal Brown to be his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Brown came to Lexington after a successful three-year stint at Texas Tech, where the Red Raiders finished among the top 25 nationally in scoring offense every season from 2010-12.
Brown's attack struggled in his first stint with the Wildcats, finishing 13th in the SEC in yards per play (5.3) and scoring offense (20.5) in 2013. But the former Wildcats wide receiver has been working to turn things around this spring. Brown spoke with SI.com about his quarterbacks, Kentucky's recruiting efforts and much more.
SI: This is your second spring practice at Kentucky. How are things different from last year?
Neal Brown: Year two is always easier. You're worried about more fundamental things than schematics, because all the schematics have already been in. We've got five new guys who are early enrollees, but for the most part, everyone knows the schematics. So now we've really focused on fundamentals.
SI: You had success as Texas Tech's offensive coordinator before making the move to Kentucky in December 2012. What made you decide to join a program that has historically struggled in the SEC?
NB: Well, this is home for me. I'm from about 30 minutes away [in Danville, Ky.]. It was an opportunity to get my family back around here. My wife's from here, too, and we've got two young children. Both of our parents are still around here, so that was a selling point.
Number two was Mark in general. It was getting together with him and really believing in his vision, believing in his last name and that success that he and his family has had. Then the last thing was that we've got a great fan base. Commonwealth Stadium, I felt good about that renovation, and our new practice facility as well.
SI: Kentucky has been thriving on the recruiting trail. On National Signing Day 2014, your class ranked 17th nationally, according to Rivals.com. How have you lured in prospects who haven't considered the Wildcats in years past?
NB: Well, the head coach is really involved. That's always a huge factor. He did a great job of hiring staff and creating a culture. He hired a staff where guys really work hard, they're good with people and are good communicators. They're young and they can relate. Mark's created a culture of recruiting that's really important. Then we have a good product to sell. It's a great town, the city of Lexington. Also, we've got all these facility upgrades. The $110 million upgrade to Commonwealth, a $45 million practice facility. And the opportunity to play early, that always helps.
SI: You struggled a bit on offense last season, but the SEC was a lot more offensive-oriented than usual. Why do you think that was?
NB: There are factors as to why the offense had a better year in the SEC. I think you look at quarterback play. The quarterback play over a three-, four-, five-year run had been down a little bit, and then all the sudden you had Aaron Murray, Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, some very good players at quarterback. That's always going to make a huge difference.
SI: So, what have you done to keep up with that offensive trend?
NB: For us, we just weren't good enough [last year]. Without depth, we played a lot of young guys, but we just weren't good enough. We're going to be better. We still have strives we need to make. We still have to improve depth and talent. But we will be better.
Really, we've focused on three things. The first is improving our tempo. We were the fastest-playing team in the country at Texas Tech for a three-year period, in terms of plays per game. We want to focus on that and get back to playing fast. The second thing is, we've got to get fundamentals better at every position. We've spent more individual time and put more emphasis on fundamentals. And third is, we've got to develop a mentality. We're here to score. That's our job. Regardless of what happens -- negative plays, adversity -- we've got to put the ball in the end zone.
SI: Offenses in college football are getting so much faster. Do you think the 2013 SEC season was an aberration in that regard? Or is the league taking on a new offensive identity?
NB: I think the defenses in this league will always be very good. I think it always goes back to coaching. We've got tremendous defensive coaches in this league, including the head coaches -- Nick Saban, Will Muschamp are a couple of defensive guys who jump out to you. There are also a lot of defensive coordinators in this league who are tremendous football coaches.
Defensive linemen are the hardest position in football to find, probably. Offensive line would be a close second, but defensive line is the hardest to find. But there's a higher number of defensive linemen in the South. When you always have good defensive linemen, you always have an opportunity to play good defense. So I think last year was probably more of an aberration [on offense] than a growing trend.
SI: Bob Stoops, Mark's brother and Oklahoma's current head coach, stopped by Lexington this week. How was that?
NB: Yeah, he was here. Both of coach's brothers, Bob and Mike, were actually here. Bob was able to speak to the team and give them some good encouragement. He just talked about when he took over at Oklahoma and the founding principles that he believed in. They met with Mark and shared some ideas. Mike met with out defensive staff as well.
SI: Coach Stoops said he wants to name a quarterback starter before the end of spring practice, which is Saturday. What's the latest on the competition between Drew Barker, Reese Phillips and Patrick Towles?
NB: They've all been up and down. The three kids, they're all young. You've got a redshirt sophomore, a redshirt freshman and a true freshman, who's really a high school senior. They have unique abilities and have done some good things and made some mistakes.
We want to get a starter named, we want to get it thinned out and not make the same mistakes as last year. But we also don't want to have false deadlines. We'll know when we know. But we need to make a decision sooner than we did last year.
NB: Well, we'd been through eight practices, and we'd had one big scrimmage. Statistically and with every tangible factor, he was behind the other three. We asked if he'd make a position change to a receiver, and I think he could have been successful in this league doing that. But he chose that he'd rather have the chance to play quarterback. But there are no hard feelings, he's a good kid. He did a good job for us, but he just wasn't going to be the starting quarterback here and he felt like he needed to go elsewhere.
SI: Barker is youngest of the quarterbacks. What has stood out about him so far?NB: Just the way he handles himself. He handles himself with a lot of maturity. He's picked up the offense well. He's got a quick release and can make plays with his feet.