Perhaps the biggest recruiting win for the Kentucky football program in the offseason was getting Eddie Gran and the entire offensive staff returning to Lexington. Gran will be entering his fourth season running the offense and in that time the Wildcats are 24-15 with 13 SEC wins and three postseason appearances. However, this offseason UK is losing a huge part of their identity.
Benny Snell immediately made an impact on the program during his true freshman season in 2016. Following the four touchdown effort against New Mexico State, Snell has been the face of the offensive attack. The bruising tailback rumbled his way into UK lore and SEC record books. Replacing him will not be an easy task.
With Snell, the offense formed into a ball possession, ground heavy attack that leaned on moving the chains and playing a field position battle. The Cats would get aggressive in certain spots, but they preferred to play complimentary football by avoiding turnovers and using a solid punt game to put their defense in good situations. It’s a winning strategy that’s been used for decades, but without a proven stud at running back the strategy will need to altered a bit in 2019.
This fall behind an experienced offensive line, UK will be returning three juniors at the skill positions who will tell the tale for the offense in 2019.
In 2018, Lynn Bowden emerged into one of the best slot receivers in the SEC. Despite a woeful passing attack for Kentucky most of the year, Bowden would become one of the most efficient targets in the country. The Youngstown, Ohio native hauled in 67 catches on the season with a very efficient catch rate of 80.7 percent. He finished with 745 yards and was clearly UK’s most dangerous weapon in the passing game.
During this sophomore season, Bowden ranked fifth in the SEC in grabs, but just 12th in yards. Bowden only had a 11.1 yards per catch average do to the limited nature of UK’s passing game. After some early season struggles from the quarterback position, UK’s passing game switched to a heavy short and immediate pass attack and that is where Bowden thrived.
Entering his junior season, it is a fair to expect the former blue-chip recruit to take another big step forward. The high school quarterback phenom made huge steps in his second full season at wide receiver and this year he’ll get a full offseason of work with a returning starting quarterback. In the lab at the Joe Craft Football Training Facility, UK’s offensive staff must find creative ways to get Bowden the ball in space vertically down the field. Do that and there will be a ton of big plays for the taking.
After a somewhat disappointing redshirt freshman season, Rose emerged into a very good sidekick to Benny Snell last season. The former three-star prospect finally began to live up to the hype that many had given him following a very successful career as a dual-threat quarterback at Garfield Height High School in Cleveland.
Rose didn’t receive anywhere near the volume of Benny Snell, but he cashed in when he was given touches. The young tailback had 442 yards on 71 carries with five touchdowns and a team high 6.2 yards per carry. Rose had 1o rushes out of 71 go for over 10 yards and four go for 20-plus. He brings a boom factor to the offense.
In the loss against Georgia, the young tailback also flashed a nice reception ability in the passing game. The redshirt junior has the size and athletic ability to be a major factor in the passing game. This is something no UK running back has been able to provide since Rafael Little over a decade ago.
Rose brings a lot of tools to the table. It will be fun to see how Eddie Gran uses and polishes those skills in 2019. The upperclassmen has home run ability, but at 208 pounds he still has some move the pile ability. He’s nowhere near the power rusher that Snell is, but he could be just good enough to suck defenses in and then bounce outside for a big run. Getting consistent splash plays on the ground could open up a lot of things for your quarterback.
Following the turnover heavy start for junior college transfer Terry Wilson, it was clear that the UK staff kept the training wheels screwed on tight for the young quarterback. It’s not hard to understand why.
Wilson was a bit loose with the football (eight interceptions, six fumbles in 13 starts) and it was evident early on that Kentucky was going to win a lot of football games by using a ground and pound, ball control formula. So for the majority of the season, UK had its quarterback put the ball in Benny Snell’s belly and occasionally use his athleticism on designed runs.
When his number was called, Terry Wilson delivered on the ground to give UK a very respectable rushing offense. The dual-threat quarterback recorded 726 yards on 107 non-sack carries for three touchdowns and a very robust 6.8 yards per carry average. Wilson’s straight-line speed is a difference maker and when he was able to get his shoulders square with some space he made some big plays with his legs. Kentucky should feel confident in Wilson growing as a runner. However, the Wildcats need the young quarterback to make some big steps in the pocket.
Wilson was only asked to pass 25-plus times in four games last season and in those games he put up a respectable 7.0 yards per pass attempt. When given the chance to make plays, Wilson was able to deliver as long as he was protecting the football and not taking sacks. Finding a way to eliminate those negative plays will be the key for growth.
On the season in 2018, Kentucky’s offense had a sack rate of 8.7 percent and this ranked 109th in the FBS. For an offense that struggled to create explosive plays, each sack or negative play allowed on first or second down was essentially a death knell. Wilson must grow in pocket awareness and mobility. Do that and there will be much more opportunities for him to show off the accuracy he flashed in his first season in the FBS.
Entering the spring and as we approach fall camp, there is going to be a lot of talk about the wide receiver position. Kentucky lost four of its top five pass catchers from last season and will be rebuilding with a lot of unproven parts outside of Lynn Bowden. However, this group needs to be picked up by the rest of the team. The offensive line figures to be one of the main strengths of the offense. Behind the big guys, Kentucky will need its proven skill players to produce at a high level.
Lynn Bowden, A.J. Rose, and Terry Wilson each have proven the ability to make big plays at the SEC level. For Kentucky to get some pop in the offense, they will need for these three to lead the way. Bowden will be one of the best slot receivers in the country and UK must scheme out unique ways to get him at least 10 touches per game. A.J. Rose enters 2o19 as RB1 and Kentucky will need his ability to produce chunk plays to stay consistent with a larger sample size. In his second year in the system, Terry Wilson needs to take a large step behind center. If he’s able to improve some of his pocket mechanics, he has a chance to develop into one of the most exciting players in the SEC East.
UK’s upperclassmen must deliver in what will be a transition period.