Eddie Gran lists standouts
Sitting in a quiet meeting room, Garrett Johnson watches tape of Dorian Baker run a route and leans over to whisper: “It’s crazy.”
Johnson finds himself saying this phrase to his longtime Kentucky teammate and fellow senior wide receiver almost every day. It’s crazy how time has flown by for all of them.
“We’re seniors now,” Johnson continued. “So just being to this point is truly a blessing. Every day, you just try to go harder.”
No matter what time the clock on the wall reads, Johnson, Baker and two other senior Kentucky wideouts have an internal ticking clock, warning that the seconds are counting down on their careers.
When they were recruited from places like Florida, Ohio and South Carolina to Kentucky, Johnson, Baker and Blake Bone had high aspirations of being stars for what promised to be a pass-happy offense.
“We all came in together and for us to be together this whole time has been amazing,” Baker said.
Much has happened since they arrived on campus with walk-on and former St. Xavier standout Charles Walker. Coordinators and position coaches have come and gone.
Offensive systems have changed, injuries have plagued all of them at one point or another, off-field distractions have been an issue for some.
But the goals they made when they arrived together are still very much in play and they’re aware that time isn’t slowing down to meet them. Coaches have been sure to remind them of that.
“We all are at the point where let’s just go do that, let’s go work on it, let’s go play, let’s not talk about it and worry about all that, let’s just go play football and get better,” Coach Mark Stoops said when asked about drops and consistency issues with that group.
Consistency was the challenge of the offseason for that wideout group, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said.
“Quit talking and go out and play,” he said was their marching orders. He encouraged each of them to work hard at specific things before fall camp started.
“They have the work ethic, they just have to go do it,” Gran said of UK’s veteran wideouts before the start of camp. “We’re going to challenge them and I’m excited to see this group.”
If you waste a minute of your practice time, there are other wide receivers in California and Texas who are utilizing their time better, the wide receivers coach tells his group. Those guys might beat you out for a chance at a professional career.
“I just tell them every day that what (time) you waste you can’t get back,” wide receivers coach Lamar Thomas said of his four seniors.
“You’ve got to come out here every day and seize the moment. When you walk out on this practice field, you get better. When you walk off this practice field, you’d better feel like you’ve gotten better because you can’t get that day back.”
It’s a sentiment that Baker and Bone, who both struggled last season with hamstring issues, have embraced.
“I’ve had an up and down career so far at Kentucky, then with the injury last year, just inconsistent plays throughout the season,” Bone said. “It hasn’t been what I wanted, but at the end here, I feel like I’m going the right direction.”
At an open practice recently, there appeared to be only one drop by a player in that position group. There was energy and effort.
Was that just for the fans? Just for show from a group sometimes known for the show?
Nope, Thomas said.
“They’ve been balling out this whole offseason into camp,” the coach said of his position room. “That wasn’t just one day. The thing I really like about it as an offense, guys are flying around.
“Guys are into it. It’s like the big lights came on. It’s like a game-type mentality.”
There’s also been a heavy push from the young receivers who are just starting their own Kentucky journey, players whose names have come up over and over again in fall camp suchas four-star Lynn Bowden, slot receiver Clevan Thomas and outside threats such as Isaiah Epps and Josh Ali.
Lamar Thomas has seen the seniors embracing the role of leader.
“It started this summer and they’ve carried it over,” he said. “It’s a whole different meeting room, guys doing the right thing. Now they know what to expect from us and they know what to expect from this offense. It’s a great meeting room.”
The time is now, Johnson said. Before it runs out for the Cats seniors.
Scouting the Cats
This is the sixth of nine stories looking at the 2017 Kentucky football team, position by position.
Scouting the wide receivers
The main man: Quietly, senior Garrett Johnson has built quite a résumé, needing just 111 more yards to tie former Kentucky star Randall Cobb for career receiving yards (1,661). Johnson has led the team in receptions each of the last two seasons and is seeing time at both his natural spot in the slot and outside as well. Johnson has become a leader in the wideout room. For his career so far, the senior has 1,550 yards and nine touchdowns.
The supporting cast: Johnson isn’t the only senior leader in that wide receiver room. Others include Dorian Baker (1,015 yards and six career TDs), Blake Bone (486 career yards, three scores) and Charles Walker, who has yet to catch a touchdown pass in his career but seems to always make a big catch at a big time. Names to keep an eye on include junior college transfer Kayaune Ross, who hurt his back and struggled last season but is being touted as a playmaker this camp, as well as sophomore Tavin Richardson. The true freshmen have been getting buckets of praise this preseason, too, including Clevan Thomas, outside WRs Josh Ali and Isaiah Epps as well as Lynn Bowden, a top 100 player nationally who is just starting to come on after missing the first week of camp.
Outlook: The big talk early in camp was how does Kentucky replace the playmaking ability of speedster Jeff Badet, who graduated and transferred to Oklahoma. The freshmen have helped ease some of those worries, and Johnson’s name comes up with regularity when asked about potential playmakers. The wideout group took a hit last season when UK had to switch from a balanced offense to a conservative, run-first approachout of necessity. This could be a season of redemption for that group, which struggled with some injuries last season but seems up for the challenge now. UK could present some serious matchup problems for defenses that key on stopping the power running game.