Obvious problems were revealed in Kentucky’s inept offensive performance at Missouri, but none more so than the Wildcats’ poor passing game.
Terry Wilson and Joey Gatewood combined to complete 4-of-13 passes for 47 yards in the 20-10 loss to the Tigers. Even with a receiver playing quarterback, the 2019 Wildcats threw for more than 50 yards four times in eight games. Saturday’s dreadful performance moved the Wildcats into dead last in the SEC in passing yards per game. The next closest team, Vanderbilt, is throwing 20 more yards a game than UK. Only ten teams in the nation are averaging fewer passing yards than Kentucky, and most of those teams run the option.
There’s no simple solution to Kentucky’s passing problem. It’s a comedy of errors, as Mark Stoops illustrated Monday afternoon.
“There were times when we got guys open and we didn’t have the protection,” he said. “One possession early was a protection issue, where guys were coming open. Other times were run-pass options where maybe we didn’t make the right decision. There were other times when we had another drop in a critical moment, so there’s a variety of things we need to do better. I don’t need to point the finger at any one group. We all need to accept the responsibility for that and improve on it.”
Most fans initially wanted to point the finger at Wilson. Once Gatewood entered the game without a magic wand, it became clear that the passer is only a part of the problem. Instead of focusing on the passer, which will likely be Gatewood this Saturday, let’s look at who is and isn’t catching passes for Kentucky.
Right now the UK quarterbacks only have one target, Josh Ali. The senior slot has one touchdown and 293 yards on 26 receptions. Five other UK receivers have caught 19 passes in 2020; two of those receptions were by reserves in garbage time, while Akeem Hayes (four receptions in two games and a touchdown) has apparently been benched after complaining publicly about the lack of targets.
Josh Ali is a fine wide receiver. That is not enough to win SEC football games. After building Kentucky’s offense for five years, Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw don’t have enough weapons at wide receiver to move the football. Here’s how this unacceptable and unavoidable truth became a reality.
The one constant in the UK wide receivers room is inconsistency at the top. One of Stoops’ strengths as a head coach is his ability to hire rising stars in the business, particularly on the defensive side of the football. Derrick Ansley and Matt House are just two of his former assistants that went on to have success at the NFL level. You can’t say the same about Stoops’ offensive hires.
Vince Marrow and John Schlarman are the only two original coaches from Stoops’ first staff in 2013. In the eight years since there have been four different wide receivers coaches — Tommy Mainord, Lamar Thomas, Michael Smith and now Jovon Bouknight. In Ali’s four years at Kentucky he’s had three separate position coaches.
It’s hard to ask for stability from the players when it’s nowhere to be found among the adults.
To be frank, there’s a talent deficiency at wide receiver. It’s not for a lack of talent from inside the state. Rondale Moore and Milton Wright were four-star prospects from the city of Louisville, each of which were lured away from Kentucky to play in Jeff Brohm’s pass-happy offense. Wan’Dale Robinson was committed to Kentucky before Mr. Football eventually bolted to help Scott Frost rebuild Nebraska. Robinson’s decision will be considered one of the biggest recruiting misses in the history of the program.
Danny Davis is further down the list when ranking the “ones that got away.” That should not be the case. The Springfield, Oh. native has been a four-year starter at Wisconsin. As a true freshman in 2017 he was making plays in the Big Ten Championship before he caught three touchdowns in the Orange Bowl. Unlike the other players previously mentioned, Wisconsin is a lot like Kentucky offensively, notoriously successful for its ability to run the football with enormous backs behind a monstrous offensive line.
The most recent big miss was a long shot from Louisiana, Devonta Lee. The two-way four-star talent chose to play for his home state school. You can’t blame him, especially after he won a National Championship in 2019, but it does sting to see an impactful wide receiver at Kentucky turn into a reserve linebacker at LSU.
You can’t turn every recruiting target into a commitment. Stoops has consistently recruited successfully at almost every position. Quarterback de-commitments have made things tricky, but the Wildcats have been successful in the JUCO market and got their guy in 2020 with Beau Allen. It’s a different story for the wide receivers. Before Michael Drennen joined Allen in last year’s recruiting class, the list of 247 Composite four-star wide receivers signed by Stoops could be counted on one hand.
- Lynn Bowden: All-American
- JaVonte Richardson: Zero snaps before transferring
- Thaddeus Snodgrass: Zero snaps before transferring
- Ahmad Wagner: Two years of Iowa basketball before transferring to Kentucky
When you can only sign four four-star wide receivers in seven recruiting cycles, you need to hit big on under the radar talents, like Jeff Badet and Juice Johnson. Those players were not recruited by Gran and Hinshaw. Of the three other wide receivers that were in Bowden’s 2017 recruiting class, Ali is the only one that’s turned into a contributor. A 33% success rate will get you into the Baseball Hall of Fame, but it will get you nowhere fast in college football recruiting.
A Year Off
In 2018 and 2019 Kentucky signed five more wide receivers. The jury is still out on all of them (except B.J. Alexander, who transferred) because there’s an incredibly limited body of work to judge their play. DeMarcus Harris was on the fast track to playing as a true freshman, until Kentucky no longer needed receivers in 2019. Bryce Oliver made a few big plays last season before the rash of quarterback injuries. Now that the quarterbacks are healthy, Oliver has been nursing a nagging hamstring injury and targeted just once this season, a miscommunication at Missouri.
Bowden’s transformation into QB1 is a miraculous story, one Kentucky fans will not soon forget. As it neared its conclusion, many wondered if there would be significant long-term consequences from abandoning the passing game. The preseason assurances by the team that timing would not be a problem between quarterback and receiver in spite of the lack of game reps proved to be empty promises.
Plan of Attack
Now Stoops finds himself at a critical junction in his career. He finally has the quality depth on defense and in the trenches to compete in the SEC, but the sport is evolving, favoring dynamic and explosive offenses that rely on the aerial attack.
Kentucky began recruiting to change to a pass-friendly attack in 2020. By adding Beau Allen early in the recruiting season, they were able to add four talented pass-catchers, including the first four-star pass-catching prospect since Bowden. That momentum carried into the 2021 class, locking up top 250 prospect Dekel Crowdus and Christian Lewis, a talent from Alabama that was recently upgraded to a four-star recruit by 247 Sports.
The wheels are in motion to make sure 2020’s passing problem is not a long-term plague on the program. However, it only takes one false step over the final six weeks of the season to derail potential progress.