Where will Kentucky’s pass rush come from in 2019?
Coming off a historic season — arguably its greatest in a half-century — the University of Kentucky football team faces the tricky task of replacing the production of two of the program’s most venerated and decorated players in running back Benny Snell and linebacker Josh Allen.
That effort is already well underway as the Wildcats work through the first phase of the team’s spring calendar. On Saturday, UK held an intrasquad scrimmage at Kroger Field to cap off its first six days of practice in preparation for next season. Afterward, head coach Mark Stoops spoke to the media about how the Wildcats look right now as they work to build upon last year’s 10-3 campaign.
“It’s been a good couple of weeks. A good day’s work today ... We had a productive practice then wrapped it up with a scrimmage and saw some good things on both sides of the ball.” Stoops said. “Obviously, we’ve got a lot of work to do. But I’m definitely encouraged with what I’m seeing so far.”
There’s an open and ongoing competition to replace Snell as starting running back. But one way in which Stoops hopes to offset the loss of the program’s all-time leading rusher is through an improved passing attack. The Wildcats averaged just 186 yards per game through the air last season and lost three of their top four receivers to graduation. Fortunately, leading receiver Lynn Bowden (745 yards) will return for his junior year. And more good news for UK fans: Stoops is encouraged by what he’s seen out of the passing game so far this spring.
“The receivers are making some plays, definitely,” said Stoops. “Not only today but if you look at all of our practices and the production ... we’ve been more efficient for sure. We’re definitely further ahead right now in that area, and that’s an area that we want to continue to improve.”
One key component to a more dangerous passing game could be Ahmad Wagner. At 6-foot-5, 238 pounds, Wagner would provide a massive target for second-year starting quarterback Terry Wilson.
Wagner played just one season of high school football before beginning his college career as a basketball player at Iowa. Wagner played three years of hoops for the Hawkeyes then transferred to UK with two years of football eligibility remaining (NCAA rules permit athletes who switch sports to gain an extra year of eligibility). He played in 11 games for the Wildcats last year, mostly on special teams. But Stoops envisions Wagner stepping into a vastly increased receiving role this year.
“Ahmad Wagner made some really big plays today,” Stoops said after Saturday’s scrimmage. “He got the ball down the field, made some nice catches.
“Hopefully he’ll have a big impact (this season). I think just getting his feet back up underneath him and having a year to play football after being away from it for a few years (was helpful).”
“He had a big impact last year without having a stat,” Stoops said with a smile.
Last year Wagner was targeted four times as a receiver and drew three pass interference penalties.
“He definitely draws some attention, and today he caught the ball and got the ball down the field,” said Stoops.
Wagner said he’s come a long way in the last year and he’s ready to step into a bigger offensive role this season.
“I think I’ve gotten a lot better at running routes and just understanding the offense,” Wagner said. “Really studying the playbook and working on my routes and my pad level and my footwork. I think I’ve improved in those categories a lot.
“I want to show the coaches that I’m prepared to take on whatever role that they put in front of me. I want our team to be as successful as possible. So if I need to step up to do that, I’m ready.”
Asked if he was prepared to reprise his role as a pass-interference-inducing specialist, Wagner laughed.
“Yeah, I think I’ll be ready for that situation,” he said. “I’m glad I could get some game experience last year in some of those moments ... now it won’t be so much nerves going out there, just going out there and making another play.”
Blue-White Spring Game
When: April 12, 6 p.m.
Where: Kroger Field
TV: SEC Network