UK Football

Can any of these players help jump-start Kentucky’s passing game?

Eddie Gran sees options at wide receiver

Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran talks about moving Tavin Richardson to slot receiver and the development of Zy’Aire Hughes and Ahmad Wagner. UK plays host to Vanderbilt on Saturday.
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Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran talks about moving Tavin Richardson to slot receiver and the development of Zy’Aire Hughes and Ahmad Wagner. UK plays host to Vanderbilt on Saturday.

Kentucky’s new wide receivers coach isn’t new to the job.

Michael Smith played the position and has been coaching it for 25 seasons at various stops.

He likes to think he has a pretty good feel for time lines on wide receiver development and what each player will be able to do when.

When Smith started working with Cats transfer Ahmad Wagner, the 6-foot-5, 238-pound basketball transfer from Iowa, the UK assistant coach predicted by about game six he could be an impact player.

Smith knew it would be awhile before Wagner would get into football shape and figure out what he had to do within the UK offense.

“There was a time like most freshmen, they hit a wall,” Smith said of Wagner, who has played a limited role in four games this season, mostly on special teams. Ahmad hit a wall, but when he got over that wall, he’s out there doing things that make us think we’ve got to find something to get him on the field. That’s what we plan on doing.”

Wagner
Transfer Ahmad Wagner, a former basketball player at Iowa, has been making big plays in practice as of late and coaches are hoping to get him more opportunities in the second half of the season. “He’s ready,” wide receivers coach Michael Smith said of Wagner. “He’s put himself in position to get on the field and what it does is create competition in my room, which we definitely need.” Matt Goins

It’s game seven of the season — Vanderbilt is coming to Kroger Field on Saturday — and Wagner is one of several UK wide receivers coaches mentioned during the bye week as players that they’d like to see get more involved in the offense, including sophomore Zy’Aire Hughes and junior Tavin Richardson.

“He’s ready,” Smith said of Wagner. “He’s put himself in position to get on the field, and what it does is create competition in my room, which we definitely need.”

Wagner and Hughes are starting to make plays in practice and offer speed (Hughes) and height (Wagner) options for a UK passing game that ranks last in the Southeastern Conference with just 145.5 yards per game.

Only nine schools in the country average fewer passing yards per game than UK, and a few of those operate the run-happy triple-option attack.

After Kentucky’s offensive line earned praise, and deservedly so, for the way it blocked in the win at Florida, UK wide receivers coach Michael Smith joked that he needled head coach Mark Stoops that his guys blocked well, too.

“We kind of talked about it earlier: Some of those younger guys that maybe by week six, seven or eight, they could help us,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said Tuesday, noting that Wagner had three big catches at practice that day.

“I’m really excited about those two guys. Those are two guys that when we talked about that, they are improving and things are starting to click.”

Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops noted that Hughes has “some juice, some speed” that might help UK as well.

While Hughes and Wagner haven’t gotten fully involved in the passing game yet, Richardson is a familiar name, but one who’s number has been called infrequently this season.

After being called the most consistent wide-out on the team a year ago by Gran, Richardson has been targeted just eight times this season and has only two catches for 23 yards.

“We need to get him going or that position going,” Stoops said of the wide receiver spot where Richardson has started all six games this season. “We definitely do, and there’s things that we can do within the offense to be intentional about getting him the ball and getting that position the ball, but there’s also things that all players can do better as well.”

Stoopsfistbump
Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops fist bumped wide receiver Tavin Richardson before Kentucky’s 27-16 win at Florida. Cats coaches are looking for ways to get Richardson more involved in the offense. He could see time at both inside and outside receiver spots the rest of the season. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

A recent ankle injury to freshman Akeem Hayes at one of the inside receiver spots may open up new opportunities for Richardson as well.

Gran called Richardson, who had 27 catches for 371 yards and a touchdown last season, a taller target inside that UK could use.

The 6-foot-3 junior from Greer, S.C., “can get in there and maybe post some people up,” Gran added. “He’s really smart. He knows everything. That’s why Tavin was that person. And you have a chance to get him the ball.”

Richardson also adds some strength in run blocking from that inside receiver spot, Smith said.

“Just brings a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge,” he said of Richardson. “We’ve talked as a staff about doing things to get him more involved inside as well as outside.”

Saturday

Vanderbilt at No. 14 Kentucky

When: 7:30 p.m.

TV: SEC Network

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