The Wildcats have two proven pass-catchers entering the 2021 Kentucky football season: Josh Ali, last year’s leading wide receiver, and Wan’Dale Robinson, the Nebraska transfer and former Paul Hornung Award finalist. No matter how good the tight ends are at catching passes, a competent modern offense needs a third option at wide receiver. It’s still early in spring practice, but a familiar face has emerged, Isaiah Epps.
“Epps has done a nice job. He’s a smart kid who has played some football here,” offensive coordinator Liam Coen said Tuesday.
“He has a trait and his trait is running up and down the field and creating some vertical stretch in the defense. I think he can be a guy that we can utilize to push the ball down the field a little bit. I think he made some plays, he came on strong at the end of the year in the bowl game. I thought he did some nice things in that game. That’s carried over into the OTAs and in some of the spring practices to get him going a little bit down the field. And he’s a smart kid. He knows how to get lined up. He’s played at this level before.”
Epps did have a solid end to his fourth year in Lexington. The Jenks, Oklahoma product caught eight passes in the final month of the 2020 season, including a 21-yarder at Alabama and three receptions in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl.
The production came as a bit of a surprise after Epps struggled to avoid the injury bug. Playing in his first game in two years, he suffered a hand injury in the opener against Auburn that kept him out of the rotation for a few weeks. He was sidelined for the entire 2019 season with a left foot injury, something Mark Stoops acknowledged the staff must continue to monitor.
“He gives you some top-end; he gives you some speed that we definitely need,” Stoops said Saturday. “He’s got that injury that has definitely been lingering, but when it’s all said and done I think he’ll be at 100% by fall. But we gotta continue to monitor that and make sure we’re not overloading him. The one thing he brings you, he brings you speed.”
The inclusion of Epps alongside Robinson and Ali indicates that Kentucky is placing a premium on speed in Coen’s offense. That is likely a big reason why two jump-ball specialists, Allen Dailey and Bryce Oliver, hit the transfer portal in the first week of spring practice. Epps isn’t the only familiar name making moves in spring practice. Coen gave Clevan Thomas some unprompted praise on Tuesday.
“I think Clevan’s done a nice job as well,” said Coen. “Clevan’s stepped up big time for us over the last week. He’s done some really nice things. He’s working his tail off. He runs great routes. He’s hustling around. He’s really one of the only guys that’s playing multiple positions now and he can handle it. I’ve been happy with that group.”
Kentucky wide receivers with speed and experience have an early leg up in the offensive install. The highly-touted young playmakers have time to catch up, but for now the learning curve isn’t as steep for the upperclassmen.