UK Football

Why Toledo might be the perfect first opponent for Kentucky’s untested secondary

In a battle of opposing inexperienced units, which will win out on Saturday: Kentucky’s defensive backs or Toledo’s wide receivers?

Lost in the preseason hubbub about UK’s young secondary — the two-deep depth chart features three sophomores, a redshirt freshman, two true freshmen and a junior-college transfer — has been the fact that Toledo, the first team to get a crack at the Cats, has a crop of pass-catchers who are almost as unproven.

In fact, Toledo is the rare case of a foe that UK actually betters in returning production at the wide receiver position. Lynn Bowden by himself had twice as many catches last year (67) as the four returning Toledo receivers (33) who recorded at least one in 2018. Bowden had just one less grab than every returning Toledo player — including running backs and tight ends — who caught a ball last season. Josh Ali’s 10 catches last year outnumbered every Toledo receiver except Rockets starter Desmond Phillips, who hauled in 27 balls as a junior. (It is worth noting that Danzel McKinley-Lewis, a 5-foot-11 junior, missed most of last year with an injury after having 23 catches in 2017; he started every game as a sophomore).

The Rockets graduated their top three receiving threats and bring back two starting-caliber running backs, but don’t take that as an outright indicator that they’ll expect less out of their passing attack this year. This decade the program has had seven receivers get drafted by or sign with NFL teams, including Diontae Johnson, a third-round selection by the Pittsburgh Steelers in April, so they’ve shown a knack for developing less-heralded talent; Johnson was considered a two-star recruit by Rivals and was unranked by 247Sports.

“Both teams will have some new guys out there and some guys with experience,” UK head coach Mark Stoops said this week. “Game one is always a little bit different. ... They very clearly know who they are, what they do, and they do it well.”

Toledo for much of the decade, and each previous season under fourth-year head coach Jason Candle, has averaged more passing yards than rushing yards per game. It threw for 2,963 yards last season despite injuries forcing the Rockets to start two different quarterbacks.

Neither of those signal callers — Mitchell Guadagni and Eli Peters — has been named the starter against UK. Guadagni, a senior, averaged 15.6 yards per completion before sitting out the last five games due to injury. Peters, a junior, started six games and threw for 264 yards and three touchdowns in the Rockets’ 35-32 bowl loss to Florida International.

Candle during a media teleconference this week said Guadagni looked the best he had on campus before having his season shortened in 2018.

“What’s that mean? Making good decisions with the ball, being accurate in the throwing game and really having a presence about him that promotes the other 10 guys to rally around him,” Candle said. “That’s how you define what a successful quarterback is.”

Whoever gets the nod — for what it’s worth, I’d guess Guadagni, who made his first career start in Toledo’s season opener last year — expect them to have the green light. The Rockets are happy to run the ball — they’ve averaged about 40 carries a game under Candle — but with a talented, experienced defensive line loaded up in front of them, they’ll need some relatively new faces in the receiving corps to reel in catches regularly to leave Lexington happy.

Let’s see who’s greener.

Season opener

Toledo at Kentucky

Noon Saturday (SEC Network)

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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.