Mark Story

Can Lynn Bowden give Kentucky a Randall Cobb-like season in 2019?

‘Coach, I’m feeling it.’ Lynn Bowden asked to go in on punt return TD.

Kentucky sophomore wide receiver Lynn Bowden doesn’t normally return punts. But with UK trailing Missouri 14-3, Bowden asked to go in and returned a punt 67 yards for a touchdown that sparked team to 15-14 win.
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Kentucky sophomore wide receiver Lynn Bowden doesn’t normally return punts. But with UK trailing Missouri 14-3, Bowden asked to go in and returned a punt 67 yards for a touchdown that sparked team to 15-14 win.

In the 2009 and 2010 football seasons, the Kentucky Wildcats’ offense was built around a jack-of-all-trades slot receiver.

Randall Cobb ran the football from the Wildcat formation. A former high school quarterback, he threw passes. Eventually, the 5-foot-11, 186-pound Cobb transformed himself into one of the more-feared pass catchers in the Southeastern Conference.

Cobb was a dynamic returner of both kickoffs and punts, too.

By the time the Alcoa, Tenn., product exited Kentucky for the NFL after his junior season, he had led the Wildcats to three straight bowl games and had been named a 2010 Associated Press First-Team All-American as an all-purpose player.

Randall Cobb TD to beat S Carolina.JPG
Randall Cobb’s 24-yard touchdown reception from Mike Hartline with 1:15 left in the game gave UK a 31-28 upset of No. 10 South Carolina and its first victory over a Steve Spurrier-coached team after 17 losses. Pablo Alcala Herald-Leader file photo

In the 2019 football season, the Kentucky Wildcats’ offense returns a jack-of-all-trades slot receiver of captivating possibility. Can Lynn Bowden have an impact for Mark Stoops and troops in the coming year similar to what Cobb did for his final two UK teams?

A season ago as a sophomore, Bowden had his fingerprints on several of the signature moments of Kentucky’s 10-3 breakthrough.

In UK’s streak-busting 27-16 win at Florida, Bowden caught four passes for 79 yards, including a 54-yard touchdown bomb from Terry Wilson that gave the Cats a 21-10 lead.

Bowden was the offensive player most responsible for Kentucky’s miraculous comeback victory at Missouri. On a day when the UK attack was otherwise stagnant, he caught a career-high 13 passes for 166 yards.

His 67-yard fourth-quarter punt return for touchdown was the play that flipped momentum as Kentucky rallied from 14-3 down inside the game’s final 5:30 to win 15-14.

As UK was claiming its first New Year’s Day bowl victory since the 1952 Cotton Bowl with a 27-24 victory over Penn State in the VRBO Citrus Bowl, Bowden was one of the stars.

He scored Kentucky’s first touchdown on a 58-yard punt return, then set up the Cats’ final score by turning a short pass into a 54-yard gain.

Lynn Bowden punt return vs Penn State
Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden returned a punt for UK’s first touchdown of the game in the Wildcats’ 27-24 victory over Penn State in the VRBO Citrus Bowl. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

For all his big plays, Bowden was not asked a season ago to play a Cobb-level role in a UK offense logically built around the power running of Benny Snell.

Last year, Bowden touched the football 107 times for Kentucky, 77 times from the line of scrimmage. He caught 67 passes, rushed the ball nine times and threw one pass. In the return game, he ran back 25 kickoffs and five punts.

To compare, Cobb had 183 touches as a sophomore in 2009 — 146 from scrimmage.

That season, Kentucky lost starting quarterback Mike Hartline to injury midseason and subsequently relied extensively on Cobb operating from the Wildcat. Cobb ran the ball 94 times in 2009 and threw it another 13 times while catching 39 passes.

In 2010, Cobb’s touches rose to 208 — 149 from scrimmage. With a healthy Hartline back under center, Cobb’s number of rushes (55) and passes (10) were reduced, but he caught a robust 84 passes.

That bountiful junior season launched Cobb on the trajectory that made him a second-round draft pick of the Green Bay Packers. After eight mostly successful seasons with the Pack, including a Pro Bowl year in 2014, Cobb signed as a free agent with the Dallas Cowboys for 2019.

During Bowden’s two prior seasons at UK, most of the Wildcat formation carries have understandably gone to Snell. Now that Kentucky’s all-time leading rusher is with the Pittsburgh Steelers, it will be interesting to see how many of those rushes transfer to Bowden.

Though the sample size is small, Bowden has not so far shown the same knack for making plays as a Wildcat QB that Cobb demonstrated.

Last year, Bowden ran nine times for 25 yards. Two seasons ago, as a true freshman, Bowden carried 12 times for 37 yards.

Lynn Bowden TD catch at Florida
Kentucky wide receiver Lynn Bowden cradled the football on what became a 54-yard touchdown catch in UK’s 27-16 victory at Florida last season. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

Also a high school quarterback, Bowden has not yet had much luck at UK as a passer from the Wildcat. He has thrown two interceptions in five career pass attempts. Bowden did complete a 36-yard throw to Tavin Richardson in 2017 that set up a touchdown in UK’s 29-26 win over Tennessee.

In both 2009 and 2010, Kentucky used Cobb as a staple of its return game. He returned 13 kickoffs and 24 punts in 2009, then had 31 kickoff returns and 28 punt returns the following season.

The obvious way to increase Bowden’s potential impact on games in 2019 would be to use him as Kentucky’s primary punt returner.

Last year, Bowden’s two punt-return touchdowns were produced on five total returns.

Will Kentucky ask Bowden to carry a Cobb-like load in 2019?

If so, is he versatile and durable enough to do so?

The success level of the coming Kentucky football season could depend on those answers.

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a H-L sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.

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