Like the defensive line in 2018, what was once seen as a weakness at wide receiver is now a strength.
In the first game of the 2019 season, five different UK receivers combined to catch 13 passes for 199 yards and two touchdowns. Eddie Gran said it was the best performance by a group of wide receivers since he arrived in Lexington in 2017.
“We didn’t have any dropped balls. I thought they played with speed and they made contested catches and I think we’ve been talking about that for three years now,” Gran said. “I was really excited by them. It was nice to see the distribution of the ball. It all felt like they were apart of it and in this offense, anybody can get it.”
Not only did they complete every catchable pass, they flawlessly executed Kentucky’s offensive scheme.
“I think what I was probably most impressed with and a lot of people don’t know this, we didn’t have a mental error in the game,” said wide receivers coach Michael Smith. “Knock on wood, but it shows the growth of these guys from the standpoint of getting in, studying our offense, studying our opponents and putting themselves in a position to be successful.”
How did the wide receivers improve so drastically? I asked that question all week. The truth is, there’s no simple answer.
Michael Smith deserves some of the credit. Entering his second season on the sideline, it took some time for the young group to embrace and implement his teachings. After a year of reps in games and on the practice field, they showed last Saturday that by following Smith’s steps they can be successful in the SEC.
“It was very gratifying. By no stretch of the means am I going to let them rest on their laurels. I think they’re mature enough group to understand we got a lot of work to do,” said Smith.
Terry Wilson vs Toledo (2019) pic.twitter.com/fXhn13tFE9
— KY Clips (@KY_Clips) September 4, 2019
Smith wasn’t the only one doing the teaching over the last year. Shortly after the season ended, Ahmad Wagner knew he had to make up for the ground he lost on the hardwood. Unsure of what exactly to do to improve in the offseason, he turned to Lynn Bowden, Josh Ali and other veterans.
“For basketball, you go in there and shoot, dribble and stuff. I just didn’t know how to get better,” Wagner said. “I talked to these guys, asking what to do to get better, what kind of drills they do, then taking that and doing it by myself on my own time. I think it helped me get a lot better.”
The results speak for themselves.
“Ahmad has shown me some things that I have never seen a wide receiver do in my life. I promise you,” said an excited Bryce Oliver. “He jumps out the gym. He’s been making big-time plays since I’ve been here.”
Wagner’s improvement was downplayed in the preseason, but Gran saw the lengthy athlete and the rest of the receivers develop throughout training camp.
“We have really seen the growth, the catches, not so many drops,” said Gran. “That’s been really good for Terry. Some of those balls weren’t perfect. That’s what we’ve been talking about, they’re not all gonna be perfect. We have to make the routine plays.”
Their improved play has made Terry Wilson’s job infinitely easier.
“They’ve been doing that since they got here,” said Wilson. ” Working in camp and working in spring, just getting that chemistry and knowing where I had to place the ball.”
Without having to deal with a quarterback competition, over the summer Wilson developed a rapport with his pass-catchers. While they created consistent connections, the wide receivers expanded their knowledge of the offense. The five players who stood out last Saturday did it from a variety of spots on the field.
“We’re not inside receivers. We’re not outside receivers. We’re wide receivers,” Smith said. “We can play wherever they need us to play.”
One week does not define a season. The receivers’ excellent play against Toledo simply gave us a glimpse of what’s to come this fall.
“I think they’ve shown you guys what they can do,” Wilson said. “We still have a lot to show. We have a lot of deep threats. We’ve got some speed guys too that can get open and do what they do. It’s just my job to get the ball to them and let them showcase their skills.”