“Recruit and develop” has become a bit of a rallying cry for the University of Kentucky football team in recent years. Josh Allen’s dramatic leap from a two-star prospect and the No. 2,121 player in his class into the nation’s top defensive player and the No. 7 pick in the NFL Draft certainly helped solidify the phrase.
Throughout the day, I’ll be showcasing three additional Wildcats who fit with that same expression – recruit and develop. The first profile of the batch, TJ Carter, is available here.
Now, here’s a look at Ahmad Wagner’s journey from a Kentucky Wildcat to a Chicago Bear.
Ahmad Wagner’s stat line wasn’t always full, but the plays he made always seemed to come in a game’s biggest moments when his team needed him the most.
His path to Kentucky was just as unusual, and football wasn’t even Wagner’s first option. At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Wagner earned a basketball scholarship to the University of Iowa. He stayed with the Hawkeyes for three seasons before switching sports and schools to join the Wildcats in 2018. Within that year, he underwent a dramatic transformation as he reacclimated to football.
Throughout that season, he didn’t record any official statistics, but he drew three pass interference penalties on his first three targets. One of those led to the Terry Wilson-CJ Conrad game-winning touchdown at Missouri, and his block in the Citrus Bowl helped secure Lynn Bowden’s punt returned touchdown.
Without a lot of playing time or even a lot of numbers next to his name on the box score, Wagner had already become a fan favorite.
The call that made it possible. pic.twitter.com/iyHrfo8RDp
— Brandon Kiley (@BKSportsTalk) October 27, 2018
By the 2019 season, that statement began ringing even more true. Plus, his “clutch gene” continued to show itself in key moments. In Kentucky’s first three games of the season, Wagner grabbed just nine receptions, but he totaled 198 yards and two touchdowns. That’s good for 22 yards-per-catch. In that same time period, he also racked up a whopping seven pass interference calls. The SEC Network named him the conference’s “biggest breakout player.”
By the end of the season, Wagner’s production had dropped, as Kentucky adjusted to a run-based offense with Lynn Bowden at the helm. Wagner and the rest of Kentucky’s receivers surely felt the effects of that. Nevertheless, he finished his final season in Lexington with 254 yards and two touchdowns on just 15 catches, good for a nearly 17 yards-per-catch average. Wagner also had nine total pass-interference calls go his way by the end of the year.
Ahmad Wagner may be the best player in history at drawing Pass Interference
— Matt Jones (@KySportsRadio) August 31, 2019
— Tyler Cantrell (@tqc90) August 31, 2019
His one-armed touchdown catch against Florida is just as legendary as it was miraculous, as he lays out all 6-foot-5 of himself to grab the ball as both Wagner and the defender cross the goal line into the end zone.
Kentucky “recruited and developed” Ahmad Wagner in an unusual way. He came to Lexington from a basketball program halfway across the country, and the staff quickly found ways to utilize him. His uncanny ability to draw flags and his success with coming down with the ball in clutch moments made Wagner’s name a popular one in the Commonwealth. It also showcased the staff’s knack for finding underutilized talent and then developing it against SEC competition.
Even with just over a dozen catches during his senior season, these facts and the rest of Wagner’s “intangibles” were enough to make him a hot commodity when NFL Free Agency came around this weekend, even though he was not invited to the NFL Combine and did not get to participate in a Pro Day due to COVID-19.
Hearing that UK WR Ahmad Wagner has a lot of teams calling offering deals….decision soon
— Matt Jones (@KySportsRadio) April 25, 2020
Eventually, one in particular came calling. The Chicago Bears must have made Wagner an offer he couldn’t refuse, and the former Cat announced he’d signed a free agent deal with the Bears Saturday evening.
They love you can’t wait to see you do work. https://t.co/hATMFBl6HM
— CoachMarrowUK (@vincemarrow) April 26, 2020
I’m no NFL coach, but as for my own humble opinion? I’d say you should throw the ball in Ahmad Wagner’s direction. He’ll take it from there.