Time was ticking. Kentucky’s six-minute offense stalled just inside the 30-yard line. A third and 12, the impressive drive looked like it was going to have an unimpressive finish. With less than 30 seconds remaining, the ball was snapped and Stephen Johnson let it fly.
“I did a pretty good job of keeping my pads low at the beginning. I think that won it at the top.”
Freshman wide receiver Isaiah Epps certainly did win it at the top. He had to fight to get the 28-yard gain that setup a go-ahead score by Benny Snell just before halftime against Ole Miss. A deep target many times early in the season, his first connection with Johnson could not have come at a better time.
“It felt good to finally connect on one and contribute to the team a little more. Those other ones, me and Steve were just off, whether it was a bad ball or a bad route, but finally we got to connect on one and make a good play in the game.”
If the video does not start at the catch, click here to see Epps’ grab.
It wasn’t the last time Johnson called his number on third and long. This time it didn’t end so well. Epps was open on the sideline route, but the ball bounced off the freshman’s hands.
Johnson told him after the play, “Keep your head up. I’m going to keep coming to you, so I’m going to need you to stay in it.”
Just like Johnson, wide receivers coach Lamar Thomas was not discouraged by Epps’ drop. Even though its ramifications hurt the team, he knows better than most that mistakes happen. It’s all about how you respond.
“I’m the leading receiver in Miami history, I made a lot of great catches, I’m not going to never say I dropped a pass though,” Thomas said.
“He got an opportunity in the game to make a big play. He made one; the other one he didn’t. I don’t know one receiver in the country who hasn’t dropped a pass as a freshmen. We’ve all been there, I know I have. We go back to the drawing board and just get better. It can be a career killer. You have to have that type of mentality that you can’t eat to get back in there, and I think he does have that. I’m not worried about it being something where he becomes an inconsistent ball player. I think he does all the right things. He does what we ask and I think he’ll continue to get better.”
Epps has an advantage many of his predecessors did not: experienced leadership. After setbacks, he has someone to turn to for guidance. Epps quickly learned there’s no time to let the drop linger.
“I wasn’t sure what was going to happen after that, but I just gotta put that one behind me,” Epps said. “After I came out the route, I dropped the ball and knew that I couldn’t hang my head because there could possibly be another ball coming my way.”
Just because Epps and the other freshmen receivers might make mistakes from time-to-time, doesn’t mean Johnson is going to quit throwing them the football.
“Those guys are going to give you everything they have,” Johnson said. “Sometimes they make mistakes, but they want the best and they want to do the best for themselves. You just gotta keep ’em up.”
We’ve seen good, great and bad from the freshmen wideouts. Expect to see less bad and more great as they grow.