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Diagnosing Kentucky’s Passing Problem

Todd Van Emst | AU Athletics

Todd Van Emst | AU Athletics

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.

UK Athletics

Rotating Door

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.

Recruiting Whiffs 

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.

Recruiting Misses

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.


Article written by Nick Roush

"Look upon the doughnut, and not upon the hole." @RoushKSR

26 Comments for Diagnosing Kentucky’s Passing Problem

  1. blueballs80
    12:28 pm October 28, 2020 Permalink

    The offense Stoops is running is outdated. Even Nick Saban adapted from his ground and pound offense to an open offense. They need to study the kansas chiefs offense. Lots of RPO mixed in but we need a QB that can throw the ball accurately, make the right reads and have the WRs catch balls.

    • bigbowdennation
      12:52 pm October 28, 2020 Permalink

      I think it’s the players more than the coaching staff unfortunately, and I also think that’s a harder problem to fix. Because stoops and gran came out throwing in that Missouri game, and it just didn’t work. I think to salvage what’s left of this season they’ll need to resort to pounding it up the middle with Rodriguez, but you’re right that moving forward next season the offense needs to open up. Hopefully with a full normal offseason and the recruits we’ve got the offense looks different next year. Otherwise the writing is on the wall for stoops I think.

    • Pensacola_Cat_Fan
      1:43 pm October 28, 2020 Permalink

      I’m sooo sick of hearing that we should just run it up the middle. You can’t do that unless you have a guy like Lynn Bowden. Even then, we didn’t beat the Georgia’s of the word. We HAVE to be able to pass the ball a little…we should be able to keep other teams honest.

    • bigbowdennation
      3:58 pm October 28, 2020 Permalink

      I agree we have to do that eventually I’m just saying we don’t have the personnel to do it this year.

  2. CatfaninCinci
    12:46 pm October 28, 2020 Permalink

    “ 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.”

    At least we can eliminate one half of that equation. The underthrown deep balls, and missing/one hopping of short and intermediate routes. And the skittish scrambling more reminiscent of the “Whatchu doin Terry” video on twitter. Joey has shown he doesn’t really do that. And Beau won’t miss throws badly.

    Atleast if you remove the one cancer from the equation, you can better diagnose the second.

  3. oldfanallin
    12:48 pm October 28, 2020 Permalink

    First, Allen should play before he transfers. Then the new recievers should play with him so they mature together. The staff should be all in on a passing game, not sorta try this and see what happens. If Allen is the future let’s get on with it. There will always be a “first SEC start”, no experience on the sideline.

    • yoshukai
      2:12 pm October 28, 2020 Permalink

      Allen will finish his career at West Virginia . Stoops and Gran have NO idea how to implement a competent passing game . Just the fact that we’ve had 3 receivers coaches in 4 years tells me what kind of importance Stoops puts on that position .

    • Ryan Lemonds Toupee
      2:28 pm October 28, 2020 Permalink


  4. Bluehender
    1:01 pm October 28, 2020 Permalink

    We need more than one elite receiver. Time for Mike Drennen and the Cummings kid to get their chances. They both have potential to be playmakers…

  5. KauaiWild
    1:21 pm October 28, 2020 Permalink

    Look, I understand the SEC has exceptional talent, but no team is full of receivers that can’t get open. Look at any game on Saturday and every team has players running open. The question is whether the QB is getting the ball to them. Question the play calling, question the accuracy of the QB, even question the reads…but the argument that people aren’t open, I’m not buying it. I’ll admit I don’t have access to film to study every play and determine who is covered and who is not. But college defense are not THAT good where they are able to blanket receivers completely.

    • Pensacola_Cat_Fan
      1:47 pm October 28, 2020 Permalink

      It’s not just getting open, you also have to catch the ball and then hold on to it. We’ve proven we don’t have anybody that can do this.

  6. BlueByYou
    1:30 pm October 28, 2020 Permalink

    Sadly, when you have a flawes strategy. You have flawed results. If you only send out 2 receivers, 4 defenders can indeed blanket them!

  7. CatfaninCinci
    1:32 pm October 28, 2020 Permalink

    Anyone else notice Roush’s tone that he hates all other quarterbacks not named Terry Turnover Wilson?

    The ‘magic wand’ quote sells it.

    He’ll be hoping they crash and burn this week. So that Terry can go back in and ruin the season.

    Face it Roush. Terry didn’t live up to the billing. And you’re mad. It’s ok. We all are. We’re just ready to move on. You’re too obsessed with being right, that you can’t see we should’ve moved on after Ole Miss.

    • yoshukai
      2:18 pm October 28, 2020 Permalink

      Terry was highly ranked coming out of high school . By the time he graduated from Junior College he had one other P5 offer besides Kentucky . Indiana. He’s done some good things , but he is not an sec quarterback . Maybe not even a quarterback .

  8. Southky
    2:49 pm October 28, 2020 Permalink

    A quarterback who can’t throw, receivers who can’t catch or get open and a coaching staff either too stubborn or too incompetent to implement a passing game.

  9. Lyle Evans
    4:00 pm October 28, 2020 Permalink

    I was mislead by the title of this article. Surely the “diagnosis” of the passing game problem is not “the receivers” alone. If you’re up for some torture, go back and look at the entire body of Wilson’s work. Take a drink every time someone is running WIDE OPEN and Wilson either doesn’t see them or doesn’t pull the trigger. Roush didn’t just jump on the Wilson train, he anointed him All America before he took one snap in a game and name-called anyone who didn’t worship him. The only doubt Roush has ever HAD about Wilson is whether to call him “Touchdown Terry” or “Terry Touchdown.” Trying to blame this dumpster fire on the receivers is pathetic.

    • CatfaninCinci
      8:07 pm October 28, 2020 Permalink

      Thank you! He’s such an apologist. And I don’t understand because he makes no apology for anyone else on the team.

    • jch67
      10:39 pm October 28, 2020 Permalink

      Couldn’t agree more! Yes, the receivers have dropped WAAAY too many passes; but how catchable were they? Take a good look at the passes TT has completed, most have forced the receiver to jump, stop, drop or some other contortion to catch the ball. Most of the routes UK runs require the receive to be delivered the ball at least somewhat in stride to be successful. TT’s balls pretty much require a receiver to completely stop and lose any momentum to catch the ball making for an easy tackle for short gain… Seriously, take a look; even the slants over the middle to the TEs (the couple there have been) are thrown forcing the TE to jump to catch the ball, even when wide ass open! By the time they land and get their footing, they have 2-3 defenders to deal with.

      TT is not an SEC QB. He’s a JUCO slinger. It’s clearly time for Gatewood to be give every chance to prepare for 2021. This is a throw-away year anyway. No eligibility lost, everyone goes to a bowl (sounds like modern day kindergarten!!). Take advantage of it and give Gatewood every opportunity to develop WITH the young WR group (shelve Ali, and Rose while you’re at it). Let this group get some REAL SEC experience against UGA, ALA, UF…etc. It will pay off in spades come 2021.

      Beau Allen needs to be QB2/3; he needs time to develop. I hear what they’re saying about him “being ready” but, really, this is UK football – we don’t get SEC “ready” true freshman QB’s, even if they’re home grown. Work him in, get him some reps and develop him for Gatewood’s departure, or possibly sooner.

      Push TT to QB2 or 3 or…. Remember, he tweeted a couple things prior to the season, and just after his kid was born, questioning whether he wanted to risk playing or not. I think his mind is made up… He’d rather be a Daddy and focus on his non-football future which looks like a very solid, adult decision to me.

  10. jaws2
    4:06 pm October 28, 2020 Permalink

    Easy to diagnose. Wilson makes poor decisions every time he goes back to pass. He panics in the pocket and never looks off of his primary unless he’s panicking. Then he gets sacked or decides to run and falls down because he doesn’t want to get hit. Pretty simple.

  11. WILDCATS1968
    4:07 pm October 28, 2020 Permalink

    I stated it on another board and will here. Wilson looks as though he has given up and just doesn’t have his heart in it anymore. The injury, having a baby, other outside stuff he has lost interest. Appreciate every thing the kid has done for us, great kid. But it is time, the future is NOW. Use the remaining 5 games to build for next year. let Gatewood and Allen use the five games and spring of next year as a tryout for QB1 for next year. What better way to truly see what you have than in live game action, especially SEC games. Also, play some of the younger guys at other positions (mainly WR) and get ahead of the process for next years position battles. Not only does it help you see you is #1 at positions, but also gets the guys game action in case #1 goes down, they would come in knowing they have played live game action as opposed to competing in 80% game speed preseason camp. it is a throw away season, even if we go to a bowl, use it for evaluation and extra live game reps that will only help build next years team.

    • oldfanallin
      5:27 pm October 28, 2020 Permalink

      Yes, if they are serious about a real passing capability, they start now and get it going for the FIRST game next year, This 2 games to figure it out every year is bad. Then 2 more to fine tune it? Start now, yesterday.

    • Middy
      7:58 pm October 28, 2020 Permalink

      It only makes sense. Sucks for seniors but this is a “throw away” season where everyone is bowl eligible it doesn’t count towards player eligibility. Might as well use it for player development and evaluation. Unless you’re a CFP bound program it’s really the only logical thing to do.

  12. WILDCATS1968
    4:15 pm October 28, 2020 Permalink

    So pretty much you would have 5 full games and camp next year to determine starters and rotations, and then you can truly build game plans that will have a better chance of producing positives results and determining who will be your go to guys that you know you can count on. It will give guys like Harris, Branham, Hayes, Drennen, and other guys a chance to gain valuable experience and learn in real game settings against other opponents where the games are more meaningful. Playing against each other for a couple months doesn’t really show you what you got and who can be counted on when the time comes.Ideally you could pretty much have your depth chart for next year all ready ironed out and use spring ball to give guys a chance to improve and move up the chart. it will make them hungry and work to improve. they guys who did not want to use as such if they get beat out for a spot, you probably do not need those type of guys anyway. Earned, not given.

  13. runningunnin.454
    5:41 pm October 28, 2020 Permalink

    Seems to be a consensus here; we’ve won a couple of big games; but, the only reason I can think of, at this point, to keep playing the same players is if we’re winning, and we’re 2-3…try something else.

  14. kjd
    10:43 am October 29, 2020 Permalink

    What happened to Demarcus Harris? He was ready to play last year so where is he now? What about freshmen? Drennen(?) was supposed to be an incredible talent.