Predicting which players will suit up and play actual football games as true freshmen is always a tricky business, but several newcomers to UK’s program appear to be safe bets to make their Wildcat debuts right away.
Kentucky’s stellar signing class of 2017 included 22 high school players, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see at least 10 of those freshmen on the field this fall.
Wide receivers Josh Ali, Lynn Bowden, Isaiah Epps and Clevan Thomas have all earned praise from their new coaches at various points in fall camp. It’ll be important for those players to get some early reps with seniors Blake Bone, Garrett Johnson and Charles Walker all set to depart after this season and another experienced senior, Dorian Baker, possibly out for the season with a serious ankle injury.
“I feel like they’re really good players,” Coach Mark Stoops said after the team’s second fall scrimmage. “They’re just ballplayers. They could probably help us on special teams. Bring them along. And, as you know, we lose a pretty good group after this year.”
Bowden — a 6-foot-1 playmaker from Youngstown, Ohio — is the marquee name in that bunch, and word out of fall camp has been that he’s come along quickly after arriving to campus late and missing the team’s first few practices.
“You could see how easy the game looks to him at times,” Stoops said. “I know he’s gonna be one of those guys where if you get the ball in his hands enough, he’s gonna make plays. … I anticipate he’ll do that — the ‘wow’ plays.”
Running back Bryant Koback, whose senior season of high school was cut short by a broken leg, has been mentioned this fall as a possible early contributor, and the Cats could definitely use him with only three other scholarship running backs on the roster.
The loss of starting left tackle Cole Mosier, who tore his ACL during the team’s first scrimmage, leaves a hole at that position. Former five-star recruit Landon Young is expected to take over Mosier’s starting spot after getting some experience as a true freshman last season, but UK will need a backup plan.
One possibility is Nassir Watkins, a 6-5, 300-pounder who Stoops recently said is actually further along at this point in his young career than Young was last season.
“That tells you what we think of him,” said UK’s coach.
Defensive lineman Quinton Bohanna — listed at 6-4 and 320 pounds — has impressed in fall camp and could help right away on the interior.
Stoops was asked after the team’s second scrimmage if there was a backup who’s been pushing for more playing time, and Bohanna was the only player he mentioned by name.
“He plays tough. He plays physical,” Stoops said. “He’s a big man out there.”
Joshua Paschal, a highly touted recruit who has been playing the hybrid “jack” linebacker position this fall, passed the eye test during UK’s first open practice and seems likely to see the field this fall.
“He’s got a lot of work to do, but he’s very, very talented and does stand out out there,” Stoops said. “He’s a physical guy. He’s got a lot of twitch. He has good instincts. He’s smart. We can move him around, do some different things with him. He’s one of those versatile guys for how big he is.”
Linebackers Jamin Davis and Jordan Wright have also been mentioned by coaches as possible early impact players.
The Cats will also have a couple of new junior-college transfers — defensive end Phil Hoskins and cornerback Lonnie Johnson — as well as several players from the 2016 recruiting class who sat out last season as redshirts: quarterback Gunnar Hoak, running back A.J. Rose, offensive linemen Luke Fortner, Drake Jackson and Tate Leavitt (a junior-college transfer), defensive linemen J’Quize Cross and Kordell Looney, linebacker Jamar Watson and defensive backs Tobias Gilliam and Davonte Robinson, as well as Jaylin Bannerman, who was recruited as a “jack” linebacker but has taken some reps as a tight end this fall.
“We do have a lot of depth and a lot of talent on this team,” Stoops said. “At least, a lot more than we’ve had.”
Kentucky at Southern Miss
4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 2 (CBS Sports Network)