With the players set to report to camp in just a few days, it’s time to continue our preview series. We’ve already addressed both quarterback and running back where UK has some questions to answer heading into the season and on the perimeter it is no different.
Kentucky enters this fall needing to replace their leading receiver from last season in Garrett Johnson who finished fifth in career receptions and fourth in career receiving yards. I mentioned on Twitter earlier this week that this loss is not being talked about enough and Johnson probably didn’t get the attention he deserved throughout his career from 2014-2017.
However, Johnson was the only significant loss for this group. UK got some underclassmen serious reps last season and gets a senior back from injury in 2018. There are still some depth questions but on paper this group has a chance to make an impact.
It’s hard to go weeks without hearing it but there is no hiding from the fact that UK’s receivers have struggled with drops in the past. Heading into year six, Mark Stoops will have his third wide receivers coach after Tommy Mainord left to be an assistant at North Texas as UK shifted away from the Air Raid and UK decided not to renew the contract of Lamar Thomas. The pass catching improved under Thomas but it’s clear that the receivers are still leaving plays to be made out on the field.
When you just look at catch rates (percentage of targets that players pulled in for receptions provided by Bill Connelly’s S&P+ numbers), Lynn Bowden led the squad with 18 grabs on 23 attempts. However, that is a very small sample size and nearly all of his receptions right at the line of scrimmage. Garrett Johnson was easily Kentucky’s most efficient option in a larger sample size as he hauled in 66.7% of his 72 targets. After that it was pretty bare for Kentucky as Tavin Richardson pulled in just over half of his targets and Dorian Baker pulled in under 50% of his attempts in 2016.
It’s very easy to see why Kentucky has had a sketchy pass game at times during the Stoops era as no signal caller has completed more than 61.5% of their attempts. The quarterback talk sometimes get beat into the ground but it is essential to remember that it takes two to tango. The receivers need to step up their game on the perimeter and give whoever their new QB1 is some help. Time will tell if new wide receivers coach Michael Smith has the secret sauce for this group to flourish.
The Wide Receiver Room
Losing Johnson really stings but he was also joined at graduation by outside receivers Blake Bone, and Kayuane Ross as well as dependable third down target Charles Walker. That’s a lot of senior leadership to lose but surprisingly Kentucky is in good spot entering 2017.
After suffering a season injury in last year’s fall camp, Dorian Baker took a redshirt and is ready to go for 2018. The Cleveland Heights, Ohio native has over 1,000 receiving yards and six touchdowns in his career. Tavin Richardson emerged as player capable of highlight reel catches after an impressive performance at the Music City Bowl and big catches to extend drives in wins over South Carolina and Tennessee. Lynn Bowden flashed as a freshman and led the team in targets in the spring game. Expect the former blue-chip recruit to be a focal point of the offense.
After the starters there is some legitimate concern as UK loses four of its top six receivers from last year. The offense will be turning to some sophomores for help as both Josh Ali and Isaiah Epps received a lot of reps as rookies but didn’t produce much production. They’ll be needed big time this fall to spell the veterans. Incoming freshman B.J. Alexander looks like he may have the ability to play right away, transfer Ahmad Wagner is raw but has size that is hard to find, and Paducah native Zy’aire Hughes moved over from the secondary in the spring and could emerge as a solid bench contributor.
The quarterback decision is still to be determined and that could likely have a significant impact on the wideouts. With Wilson the offense could continue to be run heavy while with Gunnar Hoak the offense could have their most pass attempts since moving on from the Air Raid. With that said, UK is still going to need playmaking on the outside.
With the ones, UK arguably has the best blend of size, speed, and experience since Chris Matthews and Randall Cobb were catching passes from Mike Hartline in 2010. Dorian Baker is a senior who has made big time touchdown catches and gone up against plenty of defensive backs that have moved on to the NFL. Tavin Richardson has slowly developed during his stay in Lexington and he possesses the ability to make vertical receptions as well as hauling in tough catches needed to move the chains. Lynn Bowden is a shifty athlete that is a threat to make multiple defenders miss and make a big play on every touch.
If those three stay healthy for the full slate UK should be just fine. However, this is football and we all know that is unlikely to happen. It’s imperative for the Wildcats to find some secondary options on the outside. Josh Ali and Isaiah Epps were both three-star prospects coming out of high school who both got their feet wet last year. It’s time for them to answer the bell and start making plays for the offense. Could sophomore Clevan Thomas, Iowa transfer Ahmad Wagner, or one of the incoming four true freshmen wide receivers make an impact? Only time will tell.