[caption id="attachment_248519" align="alignnone" width="1613"] © John Glaser | USATSI
Editor's Note: Eddie Gran revealed shortly after publication that Isaiah Epps will miss six weeks of action after the wide receiver suffered a broken foot in practice.
There's no denying that the passing game has struggled for much of the Mark Stoops era and last season was not much different. Despite winning 10 games, the Wildcats had all kinds of trouble getting the air attack up and running. Quarterback woes have played a major part, but Kentucky has struggled to find difference makers on the outside.
This year they appear to have a proven star and a plethora of options to emerge as complimentary pieces. The passing attack has to come alive in 2019.
We've touched on quarterbacks
and running backs
, but now it's time to step outside and check on Michael Smith's wideouts in his second year with the program.
When Mark Stoops was hired, he got many fans excited when he announced that the Air Raid offense would be returning to Lexington. Neal Brown was coming home to call the plays and before the staff coached their first game, they landed their quarterback of the future. Drew Barker committed to the program in May 2013 and despite a rough Year Zero, things looked promising for the program. It's been a rocky road ever since.
We've gone over the quarterback play, but the wide receiver positions have played a big part in the passing game's ineffectiveness. Sure the blocking part of the game on a whole has been a major plus, but other than that we've seen a group that has really struggled. Before last season, Kentucky's leading receiver averaged just 42.6 receptions and 605 yards per year. That's not going to cut it.
A UK wide receiver hasn't heard their name called at the NFL Draft since Randall Cobb was taken in the second round in 2011. This position is on a near decade drought and it is no surprise the passing game has struggled. After Lynn Bowden, Jr. finally had a breakout season in 2018, expectations for this group are as high as they've been in the Mark Stoops era.
The Wide Receiver Room
Lynn Bowden, Jr. enters his junior season with 84 career receptions, 955 career yards, and five touchdowns. This season he will need 124 catches, 1,944 yards, and 24 touchdowns to tie each program record. The yards and touchdowns won't happen, but the receptions might.
Last year the slot receiver pulled in 67 grabs with a very efficient 80.7 percent catch rate. That was the highest reception total since Randall Cobb hauled in 84 receptions in 2010. The former blue-chip recruit figures to be one of the most dangerous receivers in the country and he'll have a great shot to break James Whalen's single season reception (90) record by the end of the season. We all know he's a star, but Kentucky must find some more options.
Through two seasons, Josh Ali has played in 21 games and has recorded 13 receptions. The Hollywood, Florida native has gotten his feet wet, but now appears to be ready to step into a big role. The six-foot wideout excelled in UK's open practice and appears to be Terry Wilson's No. 2 target entering the season. His 66.7 percent catch rate ranked second while his 11.5 yards per catch ranked first on the team for players who recorded at least 10 receptions last season. He is a breakout candidate.
On the other side, Kentucky is fishing for answers. Fellow junior Isaiah Epps enters the season as the starter, but is currently tabled with an unspecified leg injury. The Oklahoma native has played in all 26 games in his career, but has just 12 receptions. Two underclassmen are in the mix for playing time at this spot. Redshirt freshman Bryce Oliver was the star of the spring game and has already received public acknowledgment from his head coach during fall camp. Allen Dailey, Jr. flashed in limited playing time last season and has the size (6-foot-3, 204 pounds) you want to have at the position.
A wild card in all of this is fan and media favorite Ahmad Wagner. The former Iowa forward played sparingly last year, but did draw some timely pass interference penalties. He will be in the rotation entering his senior season and Kentucky is hopeful he will provide some type of impact. If the big guy can improve his takeoff on the snap, he could become a serious vertical route threat.
Lynn Bowden, Jr. will get all of the attention out of the slot, but David Bouvier proved that there are catches to be made on the other side of Bowden. Last season, Kentucky's slot receivers recorded 44.8 percent of the team's receptions and this spot remains an important part of the offense. It's wide open this season with redshirt sophomore Clevan Thomas, Jr. and redshirt freshman Akeem Hayes competing for time. Don't be surprised if you see Bryce Oliver plugged in here in order to get him on the field.
It's very likely that rookies Tae Tae Crumes and DeMarcus Harris are headed for redshirt seasons. Redshirt freshman B.J. Alexander has a lot of tools, but it feels like he's behind the others at this point.
For the first time in nearly a decade, Kentucky has a bonafide star returning at wide receiver. Very similar to Randall Cobb, the Wildcats will move Lynn Bowden, Jr. all over the field, have him play some wildcat quarterback, and return punts. He will be one of the best playmakers in college football next season and the Big Blue Nation needs to enjoy him while he is here. After that there are the question marks.
Entering that 2010 season, Kentucky was desperately searching for other options at receiver and Chris Matthews stepped up to give the offense 61 grabs and 925 yards. Who will be the Chris Matthews for the 2019 offense?
Josh Ali enters the season as the clubhouse favorite and it is time for the upperclassmen to take a jump after getting his wet the last two years. Bryce Oliver has impressed a lot of people early in his career while UK hopes either Isaiah Epps or Ahmad Wagner will become the vertical threat this offense has been missing since Jeff Badet left for Oklahoma. Maybe Allen Dailey, Jr. or B.J. Alexander will rise up and surprise some folks.
It's important to remember that UK loves what they have at the tight end position. Those guys will factor into the passing game and Eddie Gran has stated the running backs will be more involved. However, you still need positivity and playmaking from your wideouts. Lynn Bowden, Jr. is going to provide the playmaking. He just needs a little help.