One of Kentucky’s most lethal deep threats will miss the entire preseason training camp, and then some.
Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran revealed the foot injury Isaiah Epps suffered in the first practice of the season required surgical repair that will sideline him for up to six weeks. In the immediate aftermath of the injury, redshirt freshman Bryce Oliver rose to the occasion.
“He has to,” the offense coordinator said. “He has a great opportunity. We’ve gotta have some guys step up into that role. So far, he’s done a nice job.”
Oliver captured the Big Blue Nation’s attention in the Blue/White Game, hauling in a team-high eight receptions for 105 yards and a touchdown. Many of those catches were 50/50 balls he won from the defense. Fans probably did not foresee the breakout performance, but it did not surprise Oliver’s coaches.
“I knew that guy could go up and get the ball,” said Eddie Gran. “I felt like that’s what he would bring to the table here. I wasn’t surprised. I was more excited than I was surprised because he did some of them against the ones. That was really good for us to see and I think it built in confidence going into the summer.”
Gran’s relationship with Oliver is extensive. UK’s offensive coordinator recruited Oliver out of Ft. Lauderdale’s Dillard High School. After Oliver was sidelined with an injury, many schools backed off, but not Gran.
“I got to watch him play basketball. He played on a 6A team that went back-to-back championships, him and Jordan Wright. So when I was recruiting Jordan, I got to see him play. His athleticism was off the charts. He was dunking the ball and his elbow was over the rim. It just felt like we had seen him before. We knew what he brought to the table and his body type is exactly what you want from an outside wide receiver.”
There’s no time for Oliver to be content. In addition to receiving reps in the slot, Allen Dailey is also running routes on the outside. A true freshman that enrolled this spring made a significant impression on Michael Smith Tuesday morning.
“I’ll tell you somebody that’s starting to show himself, which the spring was good for him, is Demarcus Harris. He had a really good practice today, knock on wood. Hopefully he can follow it up the next couple of days. As he continues to get comfortable with our offense, and have confidence in what he’s doing as far as a knowledge standpoint, you can see his natural ability starting to take over as a wide receiver.”
While most of the attention in the immediate aftermath of Epps’ injury are the players behind him on the depth chart, Epps’ roommate is quietly transforming into Terry Wilson’s No. 2 target behind Lynn Bowden.
“Josh (Ali) has had a really good camp,” Gran said. “He’s that No. 2 guy right now. I like where he’s at right now, mentally and physically. He’s got that speed, he’s gotten stronger, so I’m excited where he’s at.”
The wide receivers coach echoed his boss’ sentiment.
“Josh has had a great summer. These first five days of practice he’s really practiced well,” Smith said. “Josh Ali is a really good wide receiver. He’s the total package. He’s got unbelievable feet. He catches the ball well, has great hips, can run. I’m excited to see him this season.”
Until Epps returns, Ali and Oliver must answer the call or Lynn Bowden will be headhunted by opposing defenses.
“With Isaiah being down, this is obviously my time to step up and make plays. I just have to make plays when my name is called,” said Oliver. “As a whole we have to make plays because teams are going to be scheming against Lynn. It’s our job to open other things up so they aren’t scheming against just one wide receiver, they’re scheming against the whole receiving corps.”