UK Football

He played Big Ten basketball. Now he plays SEC football. Can he be a factor for UK?

Who will step up for Kentucky football in absence of Isaiah Epps?

Kentucky football offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and wide receivers coach Michael Smith talk about the candidates to replace injured receiver Isaiah Epps, who is out six weeks with a fracture in his left foot.
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Kentucky football offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and wide receivers coach Michael Smith talk about the candidates to replace injured receiver Isaiah Epps, who is out six weeks with a fracture in his left foot.

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Scouting the Cats

University of Kentucky football beat writer Josh Moore and columnist Mark Story are examining the 2019 Wildcats position by position through a series of nine stories leading up to the start of their season on Aug. 31 against Toledo. Click below to read previous installments in the series.

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Can the biggest receiver on the field be a primary weapon for the University of Kentucky this fall?

Lynn Bowden is the clear No. 1 option in the pecking order when it comes to UK receivers. Josh Ali, a junior and the only other Wildcat who’s recorded double-digit receptions, could emerge as his best running mate. That honor could also end up going to Bryce Oliver, a redshirt freshman who’s earned great praise throughout the offseason, or any number of young guys who might see the field early on this season.

Or, maybe, it’ll be Ahmad Wagner who takes a leap to give UK an extra jolt in its receiving attack. The former Iowa basketball player — he came to Lexington last summer following two years in Iowa City — is in his final season with college eligibility and optimistic about his chances to make a difference as a senior.

He’s spent a year now getting familiar with the playbook and building chemistry with quarterback Terry Wilson. Getting re-accustomed to running routes, as well as the different weight-lifting and training philosophies for football, took a while for Wagner to figure out.

“You miss out on so many little things when you’re away from the game so long,” Wagner said. “I think last year I wanted to pick up on the little things and then coming into this year I wanted to build on everything I learned.”

Wagner hadn’t played organized football since his senior year of high school, during which he was considered a four-star prospect despite it being his only year playing the sport. His recruiting profile — the No. 12 player in Ohio and No. 33 wide receiver nationally in the class of 2015, per 247Sports — technically makes Wagner one of the best talents that UK has ever acquired at his position.

The Wildcats recruited the Dayton, Ohio, native in spite of a commitment to play basketball at Iowa he made as a junior. He honored that commitment, averaging 3.1 points and 2.6 rebounds in three seasons with the Hawkeyes before returning to the gridiron. He was targeted four times in 11 games last season, three times drawing pass-interference calls in favor of the Kentucky offense. Wagner’s unique size — 6-foot-5, 234 pounds — helped draw those penalties, but the program hopes this year it can generate more production.

UK co-offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said Wagner was “a little bit inconsistent” at the beginning of fall camp but found his footing a week in.

“Him being the big target that he is, he’s running better,” Gran said. “With a guy like that, a quarterback feels very confident throwing him the ball, as well as our tight ends. … We need more guys to come down with those 50-50 balls and we’ve gotta make those plays for our quarterback.”

Wilson is confident that Wagner will make ’em.

“Just put it in his area and hope he comes down with it,” Wilson said with a grin. “The majority of the time he will.”

Wilson said the team likes to give Wagner a hard time — “he’s still a basketball player” — but in actuality he’s not stepped on the court in a while.

“He’s scared to go hoop,” Wilson said with a laugh. “He says he doesn’t want to bring out the old shoes.”

What Wilson describes as fear, Wagner calls retirement.

“I’m retired, especially now with the season so close,” Wagner said. “When we had some time before, some of the guys would play but I just watched. I sat back and watched.”

The ex-Division I baller continued with a grin: “I told ‘em what they were doing wrong, coached ’em up a little bit.”

Scouting the Cats

This is the seventh of nine stories looking at the 2019 Kentucky football team position-by-position.

Wide receivers outlook

Leading men: Expect Lynn Bowden to be the linchpin of Kentucky’s offense, not just its receiving corps. Bowden led the Cats in catches (67), yards (745) and touchdown receptions (five), breaking the school record for receptions by a sophomore along the way (Derek Abney was the previous Cat with the distinction with 66). Josh Ali is the only other returnee who recorded double-digit receptions last year; the 6-foot, 188-pound junior from Florida had 115 yards and a TD on 10 grabs. Isaiah Epps is 2 inches taller than Ali and started twice last season (versus Georgia and at Tennessee), but he’s expected to be out through at least the second game with a fracture in his left foot.

Supporting cast: Hoopster-turned-footballer Ahmad Wagner (6-5, 237 pounds) was targeted four times a year ago, thrice drawing pass interference penalties against defenders. He could be more of a factor as a senior. After Ali and Bowden, sophomore Allen Dailey (6-3, 204) is the only other receiver who’s ever scored. Clevan Thomas Jr. played in eight games his freshman season but was able to benefit from the new redshirt rule as a sophomore after recording three catches in as many games last year. Three redshirt freshmen – B.J. Alexander, Akeem Hayes and Bryce Oliver – will get their first opportunities to compete; Oliver (6-1, 208) was the biggest standout of the trio in the spring game, recording 105 yards and a TD on eight catches, and stepped up in Epps’ absence during the preseason. A couple of true freshmen -- Tae Tae Crumes (6-2, 172) and DeMarcus Harris (6-1, 176) -- could see the field.

Synopsis: After the defensive backs, what will happen at the wide receiver position is probably UK’s biggest question mark heading into 2019. Bowden is a beast, and will shoulder a bigger load this year, but he won’t make up for all of the 40-plus receptions that departed between graduation and Tavin Richardson’s transfer out of the program. If Kentucky is serious about throwing the ball around more, at least there are a lot of hands to go around.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader

Josh Moore is in his first year covering the University of Kentucky football team and in his fifth year reporting for the Lexington Herald-Leader, where he’s been employed since 2009. Moore, a Martin County native, graduated from UK with a B.A. in Integrated Strategic Communication and English in 2013. He’s a huge fan of the NBA, Power Rangers and country music.