Kentucky’s wide receivers coach might regularly reference his love for sugary snacks like Skittles on social media, but he tries not to sugarcoat anything for the newcomers in his position room.
When freshman wide receivers come to Lamar Thomas and ask what they need to do to play more, he sits them down to discuss it.
“I ask their honest opinion: ‘Are you better than the guy in front of you?’” Thomas said. “They know these guys in front of them are seniors and good players and they have a lot to learn from them.”
And the good news is this group of freshman wide receivers, players such as Lynn Bowden, Isaiah Epps, Clevan Thomas and Josh Ali, has learned a lot in a short time.
Now, when Thomas asks them the question: Are you better than the guy in front of you, their answer is interesting.
“They say, ‘I will be,’” he said, smiling.
There’s a good chance their names will show up more and more on the stat sheet in this second half of the season, possibly as early as Saturday’s game at Mississippi State (4-2, 1-2 Southeastern Conference).
At one point against Missouri on Oct. 7, three freshman receivers were in the game at the same time. That will happen more and more, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said.
“They’re getting used to the speed of the game,” Gran said of the players who have combined for just eight catches for 96 yards so far, with most of those going to Bowden (five catches for 68 yards).
“That’s only going to help us in the future. As I talked about a couple of weeks ago, where we really need them to help is the second half of the season. Hopefully we eliminate the mental errors and we continue to get better and more confident.”
The bye week could serve as a turning point for those freshmen, who got more repetitions than in a normal practice week. Extra work has equaled more confidence and comfort.
That group hasn’t been pouting about playing time, either, quarterback Stephen Johnson said. Each player is doing his part to get better and help the offense.
“They’re staying extra, catching balls, watching extra film,” Johnson said. “Just their maturity is the biggest thing. They’re not like normal freshmen coming to practice and going back to the dorm. They’re staying extra, doing that little bit extra so we can be a lot better for this team.”
Johnson isn’t the only senior to notice the maturity of the freshman wide receivers. The most veteran players in that room are seeing it, too.
It’s something that Charles Walker said he and Garrett Johnson discuss on a regular basis. They go back and watch film of themselves as freshmen and see a huge difference between them and the players now.
“I feel like we were deer in headlights and it’s only taken these guys a few weeks to look like veterans out there,” Walker said.
“That also shows how much leadership we have in the wide receivers room. They’re learning from us and we’re setting a good example, for the most part, I think.
“It’s awesome seeing them in practice and once they get their shot, I know they’ll take advantage of it.”
Each of those players brings something important to the position, Walker assessed.
“Isaiah is just so fast; I don’t think he realizes how fast he is yet, but he’s slowly getting it,” Walker said.
Epps’ roommate, Ali, runs exceptional routes and has perfect footwork, Walker said. Thomas’ gift is his ability to put in the extra work and stay low to the ground to maximize his power.
“He’s going to be a great slot in years to come,” said Walker, who’s in one of the slot spots ahead of Thomas now.
Bowden, the highest-rated recruit in this class, also has seen significant time at punt and kickoff return spots. The freshman wide receiver, who never played that position until this season, also has been part of wildcat formations and trick plays.
“He’s just a freak athlete,” Walker added.
Epps has been targeted multiple times on deep passes from Johnson, but the two haven’t connected yet.
It’s going to come, Epps said.
“Since the summer, since fall camp, we’ve all made great leaps,” he said.
Even for the most seasoned of the freshmen, there’s been a learning curve getting used to the speed and rigors of the college game. Simple things like reading a defense take time, Epps said.
“When I was in high school, we didn’t focus much on that, so getting here, there was a pretty big emphasis on reading the defense and knowing what to do,” he said. “I’ve grown in that area a little bit.”
There’s been some incredible growth from all of the freshman wide receivers in recent weeks, Thomas said.
It’s about to show itself on the field for Kentucky (5-1, 2-1), too.
And not just in the form of freshmen making plays.
“They’ve made the older guys better,” Thomas said. “They’ve pushed them. We finally have competition at each position.
“It’s a friendly competition, but at the end of the day, you want that. You want the guy to be a little afraid of the guy behind him because every day you’ve got to show up to practice and give it your all.”
Kentucky at Mississippi St.
4 p.m. (SEC Network)