Shannon Dawson likes to move quickly.
He was that way at West Virginia where his offense averaged a mere 22.1 seconds of possession per play from 2012-14, the 13th fastest attack in the country over that time. A whopping 89 times the Mountaineers scored on drives of 2 minutes or less. The Hal Mumme disciple -- he was an assistant under the originator of the Air Raid Offense at Southeastern Louisiana -- orchestrated a game plan that produced 1,536 pass attempts and 11,561 passing yards at West Virginia, with both of those figures ranking among the top 15 nationally.
So when Dawson finally decided to cut ties with coach Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia to run his own offense at Kentucky, the 37-year-old wanted to hit the ground running. The time from his initial conversation with Wildcats’ coach Mark Stoops to a deal being finalized was all of 2-3 days, he said. And immediately after West Virginia wrapped up its bowl game, he and his wife were en route to Lexington. The next day they were with a realtor and were able to pick out a house before sundown.
"I can be extremely decisive," Dawson joked.
Putting it in football terms, he said, "You have to be able to pull the trigger pretty quickly."
"You have to have a no-conscience approach to it," he explained. "Like rolling dice, there’s no conscience in that. There are going to be plays that work and plays that don’t work. You have to be able to move on."
Stoops said he talked to a number of offensive coordinators after Neal Brown left to become the head coach at Troy, but in the end he wanted to stick with the spread offense already in place. It came down to the big picture, he said, and when he learned of Dawson he was "sold on him right away."
The deciding factor? Not speed or eye-popping passing numbers. It was West Virginia’s recent emphasis on the power-running game, which began with Holgorsen’s acquisition of former Stanford tight ends/tackles coach Ron Crook just before the start of the 2013 season. By the end of 2014, the Mountaineers had gone from 1,784 yards rushing and 35.6 rush attempts per game to 2,376 yards and 43.31 attempts per game.
"The thing I liked from the style of offense they were doing is they brought some physicality and some run-game to this style of offense," Stoops, a defensive-minded coach, explained.
Said Dawson: "That’s probably one of the bigger reasons Coach Stoops hired me here. When we talked, I talked just as much about being physical and punching people in the mouth as throwing it down the field. In today’s game you have to be able to do both. Defenses play the pass a lot better than they did 5-6 years ago, and so if you can’t run the football a little bit and make them play honest, then you’re probably in a pickle."
A few days into spring practice, Dawson says he likes what he sees from the roster. The status of the offensive line remains to be seen, he said, but he was confident that, "We definitely have enough juice and firepower at our skill positions to make plays."
One of those skill players is quarterback Patrick Towles, who showed he had all the tools last season, throwing for 2,718 yards and 14 touchdowns.
"As far as arm talent goes, I haven’t been around anybody with that arm strength," Dawson said of Towles.
But that doesn’t mean the starting job is automatically his.
Having strong arm is great, but Dawson said on the first day of practice, "That’s got little to do with playing football productively."
Drew Barker, who Stoops said was close to winning the starting job as a true freshman before redshirting, is splitting reps 50-50 with Towles.
"Obviously Patrick has some experience on Drew and all this and that, but I’m excited about both of those guys," Dawson said. "I’m open-minded about the position. I’m open-minded about every position. That’s the way you have to be when you go somewhere.
"[Towles] obviously knows he has the upper hand because he has the experience and Drew’s a younger kid, but he’s going to have to prove to me that he’s going to win the job."
Part of that process will be acclimating to Dawson’s way of doing things, a reprogramming process he says has both quarterbacks' heads spinning.
"We break it down to where there’s not a whole lot going on in their minds," he said. "We don’t get quarterbacks involved in a lot of protection shifts and this and that. He’s got to communicate with everyone on the field, and he’s got to have a clear mind and a clear thought process as far as his pre-snap thoughts."
"That’s the biggest thing," he said. "There’s much more problems in indecision than making the wrong decision."