Bracing for the loss of several veteran wide receivers after next season, UK’s coaches went into the 2017 recruiting cycle knowing they would need to bring in a sizable group of talented players at that position.
Judging by the smiles on those coaches’ faces Wednesday, mission accomplished.
Kentucky officially added five wide receivers on national signing day — Josh Ali, Lynn Bowden, Isaiah Epps, Javonte Richardson and Clevan Thomas — a mixture of high-upside talent and instant-impact players who can play inside, outside and even in the backfield.
According to co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw, all of the new signees will have a chance to play this fall.
“We gotta get guys ready, because we are going to have an exodus of receivers here,” Hinshaw said. “So we want to play some freshmen this year in different roles and get them ready for the next year.”
After the 2017 season, UK will lose seniors Dorian Baker, Blake Bone, Garrett Johnson and Charles Walker, and the Cats are already without Jeff Badet, who led the team in receiving yards this past season but has decided to transfer for his final year of eligibility.
Other than those players, junior Kayaune Ross and sophomores Jabari Greenwood and Tavin Richardson will be the only non-freshman receivers on the 2017 roster.
The new guys should make an immediate impact.
“Lynn is exceptional with the ball in his hands. He’s explosive,” said Coach Mark Stoops. “He’s the type of guy where he changes the digits on the scoreboard, so you want to put the ball in his hands as many times as you can.”
Javonte Richardson — listed at 6-4 and 230 pounds — offers arguably the highest long-term potential of any player in UK’s recruiting class, regardless of position. He has the size and length of a prototypical outside receiver, but he’s played so many positions throughout his high school career — in addition to playing basketball — that his fundamentals as a pass-catcher aren’t there just yet.
Scouts and recruiting analysts who have covered Richardson in high school have told the Herald-Leader that, if he works at developing those skills, the sky’s the limit. UK wide receivers coach Lamar Thomas doesn’t think attention to detail will be an issue.
“We’re really excited about him,” Thomas said. “He’s a serious kid, too. I love everything about him. Very serious. You can tell he wants to be the best. He wants to do whatever it takes to be the best.”
Thomas said he wouldn’t be surprised to see Richardson on the field right away this fall, noting that the Ohio native brings a physical style that could be a major problem for opposing defensive backs.
“This is a grown-man conference,” Thomas said. “The SEC, they don’t call a lot of defensive pass interferences. … You have to be able to push and pull and tug and scratch and claw and everything else to get down the field.”
Epps — a 6-2, 185-pound prospect from Jenks, Okla. — might be the most intriguing wide receiver in UK’s signing class.
Hinshaw said the Wildcats’ coaches knew toward the end of the season that Badet might be leaving the program, and that meant they would need to add one more outside receiver before next fall.
UK offensive quality control coach Tommy Mangino had successfully recruited Epps’ brother — also a receiver — to Iowa State in 2015, when he was an assistant on the Cyclones’ staff, and he mentioned Epps as a possibility to fill UK’s need.
Epps’ name was put on a list with a half-dozen other recruits from around the country, and UK’s offensive coaches watched the film of each player. Then they took a vote on who they liked best.
“We went around the room, and Epps was either one or two with everybody in the room,” Hinshaw said.
UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran told Hinshaw to go to Oklahoma and check him out, and the Wildcats had their man not long after that.
“His route-running is extremely good. There are things that he does that are just so natural,” Hinshaw said. “He also grew, got faster … and boom, we’re getting a special receiver. So we’re really excited about him.”
Ali — a 6-foot, 180-pounder from Hollywood, Fla. — is often overlooked in this group, but Gran was his primary recruiter and loves the approach he brings to the field — “He’s so polished” — as well as his versatility. “We think he can play inside and outside,” he said.
Clevan Thomas is the only one of these receivers who is already on UK’s campus as an early enrollee. The 5-11 slot receiver will go through spring practice with the Cats and is expected to provide an immediate impact this fall.
By the time Lamar Thomas (no relation) got around to talking about him, the UK receivers coach was all smiles, joking that his position group would have so much firepower in 2017, star running back Benny Snell might be jealous.
“Hell, we might have to go five-wide. Then Benny gets mad,” Thomas said. “We have a lot of talent, and that’s a good thing.
“You have guys that are going to work hard and the best guy’s going to be out there on the field. And you know that if that best guy goes down or is not having that day, there’s a guy behind them that can replace him, and it’s not going to be a fall-off.”