The 2018 Kentucky football team is being touted as Mark Stoops’ most experienced in six years at UK. There is talented, experienced depth at almost every position, except wide receiver.
Garrett “Juice” Johnson left big shoes to fill. The graduating senior who is currently in training camp with the Chicago Bears, led Kentucky in receptions (48) and yards (539) in 2017. Juice concluded his Kentucky career fourth on the school’s all-time receiving yards list (2,089) and fifth in receptions (155).
Along with Juice, there were four other significant departures in the wide receivers’ room — Blake Bone, Kayaune Ross and Charles Walker. Replacing their production will not be easy.
“We need to step up and we need to have some playmakers at wide receiver,” Mark Stoops said at this week’s Louisville kickoff luncheon.
The first name that will come to the minds of fans is Lynn Bowden. A late arrival last year, as Eddie Gran put it, “he was drinking from a firehose” for half the season before he blossomed into a bigger role, on that will exponentially grow in 2018.
Tavin Richardson broke out halfway through the 2017 season. He caught 27 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, filling the hole left by Dorian Baker who will return for one more year after suffering an ACL injury in the preseason.
Along with tight end C.J. Conrad, Kentucky has four proven pass-catchers. The rest have some work to do.
Three of Bowden’s classmates — Isaiah Epps, Josh Ali and Clevan Thomas — received plenty of preseason praise, but could not convert that into on-field production. Epps showed flashes as a potential deep-ball threat, but only reeled in one big one, a 28-yard catch just before halftime against Ole Miss.
New wide receivers coach Michael Smith will welcome five newcomers into his meeting room: B.J. Alexander, Allen Dailey, Akeem Hayes, Bryce Oliver and Iowa basketball transfer Ahmad Wagner.
Gran is confident in his young wide receivers, but he needs at least three of them to become playmakers in a hurry.
“I think we’ve got some talented young men that can really help our quarterbacks,” Gran said earlier this week. “We need to compete, but we need to compete with some urgency on every single play. I think that’s going to be the message for us as we go into this thing because you go into a game, and Coach (Stoops) always talks about the first play, the 15th or the 68th. You don’t know when that play’s going to matter to make a huge difference in the game. We just need to compete with urgency on every play in practice, as well as when we get into a game.”
It may sound like a simple message, but it’s one that didn’t sink in until Stoops had a “coming to Jesus” moment with the wide receivers halfway through the spring. For Kentucky’s offense to be successful, the pass-catchers must make strides during fall camp.
“We want them to compete from the get-go. Every single rep matters. Let’s execute it with some urgency.” It must happen in order to fulfill Gran’s ultimate goal for the offense: “We gotta become more explosive.”