The 2019 Kentucky football season was defined by the run game. Ironically, it ended with a beautiful pass from one wide receiver to another. Now Josh Ali is trying to use momentum from the outstanding final Belk Bowl drive to help UK’s offense transition back to a balanced, aerial attack.
Leader in the Room
No. 6 is the undisputed top option for Terry Wilson entering the 2020 season. Last year Ali reeled in 23 receptions (second behind Bowden) for 233 yards and three touchdowns. He’s back for a senior season and better than ever.
“He’s gotten faster, stronger. Coach Ed and Coach Hill (the strength coaches) did a fantastic job,” said UK’s offensive coordinator. “He just really looks quick. Coach Bo has really worked with him on his releases. He’s doing a great job getting off the ball, being more physical as well. I love where he’s at. He’s being a leader out there. He certainly is the No. 1 guy out there right now at the receiver position.”
A versatile, explosive weapon, Ali can play any position at wide receiver, although he’ll primarily be used in the slot to maximize his targets. Reliability is something you cannot quantify but Ali has it. He showed that in the biggest moment of the 2019 season. His Belk Bowl touchdown reception gets all of the glory, but that wasn’t his most impressive play on that final drive. That actually happened on fourth and long.
#89 Allen Dailey — A true junior from Pinson, Al., Dailey’s high school quarterback was Bo Nix and he was coached by Bo’s father, former Auburn quarterback Patrick Nix. A big body that was a physical blocker for Lynn Bowden in 2019, typically players his size play exclusively at outside but Dailey has spent extensive time working out of the slot. Last year the 6-foot-3 target caught seven passes for 75 yards.
#86 DeMarcus Harris — A coach’s son, Harris redshirted as a freshman in 2019 after putting up gaudy numbers in Vero Beach, Fl. He had 1,582 receiving yards, the most in Florida’s largest class of high school football, on 73 receptions and 16 touchdowns as a high school senior. The 6-foot-1 outside receiver is an impressive young man who does not sound so young at all.
#18 Clevan Thomas — A 5-foot-11 slot receiver from Miami, Thomas enters his redshirt junior season with 14 career receptions for 161 yards and a touchdown. Thomas will be used in four wide receiver sets and when Ali isn’t running routes from the slot.
#85 Bryce Oliver — As a redshirt freshman the Ft. Lauderdale native emerged as a deep play threat. In the season-opener he high-pointed a ball to score standing up from 32 yards out. His opportunities were limited once Lynn Bowden took over, but he still made the most of it, catching a crucial 44-yard pass to setup a score against Missouri.
#83 Justin Rigg — The senior from Springboro, Ohio totaled 11 receptions for 128 yards in 2019, including five receptions for 50 yards against Florida. Rigg is the complete package as Kentucky’s starting tight end.
#88 Keaton Upshaw — You’ll be hard pressed to find a more physically impressive player on the Kentucky football team. At 6-foot-6, 235 pounds, Upshaw towers over opponents. Still slightly raw in the blocking department, even if he doesn’t make significant strides he could be the best candidate to replace Ahmad Wagner as the “jump ball specialist.”
#80 Brenden Bates — The Cincinnati Moeller product transformed his body this offseason, adding a significant amount of mass to his once skinny frame. He gets the third crack at playing behind Rigg and Upshaw, but the Wildcat could implement more 13 personnel this fall.
Newcomers — Kentucky signed four talented wide receivers in the 2020 recruiting class. #13 Earnest Sanders and #14 Kalil Branham have bright futures, but they may not play as quickly as #84 Izayah Cummings and #5 Michael “Donut” Drennen. The Male product is a raw talent that has unteachable size and physicality to catch jump balls. Drennen’s athleticism is on another level. He’s the caliber of athlete that you cannot keep off the field. It may not happen week one, but they’ll find ways to create opportunities for him to make plays from the slot.
Wildcat pass catchers experienced a tale of two seasons in 2019. With a healthy Terry Wilson, Kentucky’s WR’s and TE’s were heavily involved in the passing game. Catches and touchdown receptions rapidly decreased once Lynn Bowden was inserted as QB1. A reason for excitement for 2020 is that the pass catchers selflessly morphed into efficient blockers out of necessity when offensive coordinator Eddie Gran’s offense heavily leaned on a rushing attack.
Senior WR Josh Ali is expected to be Terry Wilson’s primary target after catching 23 passes for 233-yards and 3 touchdowns a year ago. Fellow returning receivers Bryce Oliver, Allen Dailey, Akeem Hayes, and Clevan Thomas combined for 25 grabs for 290-yards and 2 scores. Word out of preseason camp is that newcomers Izayah Cummings, Michael Drennen II, DeMarcus Harris, Earnest Sanders, and Kalil Branham have impressed. Expect at
least one or more of the rookies to contribute in 2020. Also, junior WR Isaiah Epps missed the 2019 season due to a foot injury. An Epps return to the field would add a much needed deep threat.
Coach Vince Marrow’s TE group is deep and feature Senior Justin Rigg who was named to the 2020 John Mackey Award watch list which honors the top TE in the nation. Rigg caught 11 passes for 128-yards in 2019 and was considered one of the best in-line blocking TE’s in the SEC. 6’6, 240-pound redshirt sophomore Keaton Upshaw has a mountain of upside and is expected to have a breakout season. Redshirt sophomore Brenden Bates and freshman Nik Ognenovic will provide quality depth. Kentucky’s intent is to increase TE production in the passing game while maintaining their status as elite blockers. Trust me on this, play action passes to the TE is a quarterback’s friend.
The WR position is the question mark for the 2020 Wildcats. They’ve displayed the ability to block and did so at a very high level a year ago. Now, it’s time for the receiving corps to stretch the field and significantly increase their catch and touchdown reception numbers. Higher WR production will prevent opposing defenses from loading the box to counter the potent Kentucky rushing attack.
Who Calls the Shots
Jovon Bouknight enters his first season as Kentucky’s wide receivers coach. Bouknight comes to Lexington from Eugene after spending one year with the Oregon Ducks. He cut his teeth coaching at Utah State. Even though he has spent most of his coaching career west of the Mississippi River, he crossed paths with Mark Stoops while recruiting in Florida. Bouknight coached in three practices this spring before campus was closed. As soon as he arrived, DeMarcus Harris noticed a difference in the meeting room.
“I think there’s a big shift in the receiver room when Coach Bo came in,” Harris said Saturday. “He’s the type of coach that I like. He’s very detailed and that’s what you have to be to be a great receiver. I think in our receiver room there’s a big shift. When we come here, it’s business. We like to have fun, but it’s a business first.”
That’s just one of the rave reviews Bouknight’s received thus far. The record-breaking wide receiver at Wyoming is a stickler for details. The nuances of his teachings should help the rusty group create more separation and improve their releases against press coverage at the line of scrimmage.
Bouknight isn’t the only new addition. A familiar face returned to Lexington this summer, C.J. Conrad. The popular UK tight end is now a graduate assistant for Vince Marrow. He’s bringing what he learned from the New York Giants’ Evan Engram and sharing it with Rigg and Co.
Entering 2019 Isaiah Epps was expected to contend with Josh Ali to be Terry Wilson’s top deep threat. Unfortunately, the injury bug bit in more than one way. Epps broke his foot in preseason practice. The initial timetable for his return was for the Florida game. It’s been a year and he’s still remarkably absent from any preseason playing time conversations. At this point, don’t expect to see No. 81 and if we do, consider it a bonus.
Biggest Question Mark
Since Mark Stoops got to UK, every year fans want to know, “Is this the year the pass catchers take the next step?” Even with excellent play from Juice Johnson and Lynn Bowden, UK’s offense has struggled to find a consistent combination.
I can unequivocally guarantee that Kentucky’s wide receivers will catch more passes in 2020 than in 2019. It’s the lock of the millennium. How much better will the passing attack be? The pass-catchers have to prove they are playmakers before the fan base completely buys in.
One Bold Prediction
“DeMarcus Harris will lead ‘the other guys.'”
The coaches and quarterback trust Josh Ali. Finding playmakers from the supporting cast is what Eddie Gran has searched for this preseason. Aside from the obvious, it has been the position’s defining storyline. We will certainly see flashes from Dailey and big plays from Oliver, but I believe Harris is a star in the making as Kentucky’s Z-receiver. In addition to sticky hands, he boasts 4.4 40-yard dash speed and most importantly, he has what it takes in-between the ears.
Wildcat Forecast: Quarterbacks