Why Liam Coen came back to Lexington to fix the Kentucky offense after 'it didn't work out' with the Rams
When Liam Coen wasn’t traveling with the Los Angeles Rams or chasing his toddler around the house on fall Saturdays, he caught glimpses of the 2022 Kentucky offense. He texted with UK players and coaches, and he was still emotionally invested enough to keep tabs on the program that he helped lead to its 3rd 10-win season since Paul “Bear” Bryant left UK in the early 1950s. Plenty of the players Coen coached as Kentucky’s offensive coordinator were still there a year after the program’s best scoring season in 14 years.
He got an uneasy feeling as he watched UK’s offense regress from afar.
“I put them in a tough spot with the timing of when I left,” Coen told SDS. “That trickled into a different system, different terminology … it was difficult to watch at times. You get frustrated watching it because you wish you could help. I felt guilty at times.
“But I wouldn’t have made the decision any different looking back on it, even after it not really working out in both places.”
By “both places,” Coen is referring to Kentucky and the Rams. And he’s right. For one reason or another, it didn’t work out for either team in 2022. The Rams’ Super Bowl encore season turned into an injury-riddled, playoffs-less disaster, while Kentucky’s 10-win encore season saw the Cats regress by 12 points per game in a 7-6 campaign with Rich Scangarello as Coen’s 1-and-done successor.
In early January, when Coen officially agreed to return to Lexington in the same OC role he had in 2021, he became the 1st coach to ever go from the Rams (he was on Sean McVay’s offensive staff from 2018-20) to Kentucky, back to the Rams, and then back to Kentucky again, all in a 4-year stretch. Less than a year after he made the post-Super Bowl decision to leave Kentucky to reunite with McVay as his new offensive coordinator in Los Angeles — he said that was the only job he would’ve left for — he felt a pull back to the Bluegrass State.
“I definitely didn’t expect this to be happening a year ago when we decided to come (to L.A.),” Coen said. “But at the end of the day, we missed Lexington. We missed college football. The recruiting and all the stuff that NFL coaches don’t really want to get back involved with — trust me, it’s a little crazy right now anyways — I missed the relationships. I missed the impact we could potentially have on 18- to 22-year-old kids’ lives. Having the players over for dinner, having them ‘needing’ you a bit more to help them through their life journey.
“Matthew Stafford, a great friend of mine at this point, he doesn’t need me, really. He’s doing just fine. We missed that.”
Coen was raised by 2 parents who were teachers. His dad coached high school football in New Hampshire. The teaching element has always been in his DNA.
Two years ago, the task was teaching Will Levis how to handle being a starting quarterback at the college level. The 2 maintained a close relationship after Coen left for Los Angeles. He even hosted Levis at his house for dinner when he was working out in California after spring ball.
But now with Levis off to the NFL, Coen is tasked with teaching North Carolina State transfer Devin Leary how to take another step in the SEC. In the ACC, Leary was the conference’s Preseason Player of the Year in 2022 following a 35-touchdown season in 2021. A season-ending pectoral injury halted his 2022 season after 6 games. One of the key reasons why Leary opted for Kentucky as a coveted player in the transfer portal was the pro-style, McVay-based scheme that Coen operated.
Before Coen made the move back to Lexington, he and Leary began texting. Leary would send his new play-caller concepts he liked or pictures of different looks to let him know what he thought could be effective in the offense. Coen did his homework on Leary before they got their in-person introduction.
— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) January 20, 2023
“Just a natural passer of the football,” Coen said of Leary. “You just see the ball jump off his hands. I think he’s a very good opportunity thrower … he’s very much in the cylinder on a lot of throws that you’re looking for. Accuracy doesn’t always just mean that the ball is in a perfect spot. Accuracy is where you put the ball in a place where your receiver can make a play on the ball and the defender can’t. I think (Leary) just gives receivers a great chance to catch the football.”
The receiver situation Coen stepped into this time is certainly different than the last go-around. Two years ago, he played a pivotal role in signing Nebraska transfer Wan’Dale Robinson, who became intrigued by the idea of being in a Cooper Kupp-like role in Coen’s offense.
“Wan’Dale was going to be the guy. There was no ifs, ands or buts about that. I didn’t really care who else was in the room,” Coen said.
A Kentucky record-setting 104 catches and 1,334 yards later, yes, it’s fair to say that Robinson was “the guy.”
Kentucky might not have someone established as “the guy,” but the returning depth is more established than it was in 2021. Barion Brown and Dane Key both finished in the top 5 among SEC true freshmen receivers in catches and yards, while senior Tayvion Robinson has more than 2,000 receiving yards at the Power 5 level.
Of course, Kentucky’s passing game can only improve so much if the offensive line doesn’t take a significant step forward. No Power 5 team in America allowed more sacks (46) than Kentucky. If not for Chris Rodriguez Jr.’s ability to run through 1st contact, that 3.26 yards per carry clip would’ve been even worse.
The Cats addressed that obvious need to repair “The Big Blue Wall” by adding Alabama transfer Tanner Bowles to play on the interior, while Northern Illinois transfer Marques Cox figures to step into the left tackle spot after starting there the last 4 years (he actually suffered a season-ending foot injury in NIU’s game at Kentucky this past season).
Coen didn’t need to spend a whole lot of time rewatching Kentucky’s 2022 offense to see what needed to be addressed immediately.
“First and foremost, we need to run the football better, and we need to protect the quarterback,” Coen said. “Ultimately, those are the 2 things we need to get to work on as soon as we get there. The staff is in alignment with that, and I’m sure the players will be as well because I think they know we’re not that far off.”
Ironically, you could’ve applied that critique to the Rams’ offense that Coen was a part of this past season. As a result, Stafford suffered a spinal cord contusion that cut his 2022 season short. By early December, it was clear that the decimated, Stafford-less Rams weren’t going to be defending their title in the Super Bowl.
Leading up to a Thursday Night Football game on Dec. 9, rumors began to surface that Coen was being linked to a Kentucky reunion following the Wildcats’ post-regular season firing of Scangarello. But the timing was awkward because with a month of the NFL regular season left, it wasn’t like Coen could leave midseason, despite UK’s obvious urgency to fill the coordinator role ahead of the Early Signing Period and with the transfer portal window open. There was concern that if the Rams won an otherwise meaningless Thursday Night Football game, Cats coach Mark Stoops’ pursuit of Coen would be put on the back burner.
Baker Mayfield, who was claimed off waivers 2 days earlier and got 1 day of practice, then led the Rams to a comeback victory that ended up being the highlight of Coen’s season. But the following morning, Kentucky fans got the news they were hoping for.
Rams OC Liam Coen assisted in Baker Mayfield’s rushed prep for TNF dramatics but he is headed back to @UKFootball as OC, he job he had in 2021, according to sources. UK fans can relax.
— Chris Mortensen (@mortreport) December 9, 2022
“That was outta nowhere,” Coen admitted. “Not really sure how that came out at that time.”
Coen said that to that point, he had told the Rams only that “I may or may not be here” in 2023 and that nothing was official with Kentucky. Whatever the case, Coen finished out the season in L.A. — his goal was to help get Mayfield paid — and the return to UK was announced by the school 2 days after the Rams’ regular season ended.
He spent that week between the end of the regular season and his cross-country move diving into all things 2022 Kentucky. That meant in addition to watching every game, he even sat down and watched all of Kentucky’s Music City Bowl practices.
“Needless to say, there’s room for improvement,” Coen said. “That’s ultimately why you coach.”
He’ll return with another rebuild of sorts, but after the job he did in 2021, expectations will be greater. So, too, will his salary. After making $775,000 in 2021, Coen’s new deal will pay him an average of $1.8 million annually over the course of the 3-year deal. It was the richest contract ever given to a Kentucky assistant.
Ideally, Coen will lead several prolific offenses through the entirety of that contract. He wants to establish roots in what’ll be his 9th different coaching stint since he got into the profession in 2010. The goal was never to leave Lexington in the 1st place. But the opportunity to be the right-hand man for McVay was too good of an opportunity to turn down.
Now, though, Coen and Kentucky have exactly what they wanted — an opportunity for it to work out.