Our next installment on our series spotlighting the best players at each position that Kentucky football will face in 2016, we turn to the receivers. We’re combining wide receivers and tight ends.
1. Calvin Ridley, Alabama: As a freshman last season, the Coconut Creek, Florida native caught an SEC-leading 89 passes for 1,045 yards and seven touchdowns. Ridley caught six passes for just 14 yards in the national championship game, but caught eight passes for 138 yards against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl and eight passes for 102 yards against Florida in the SEC Championship Game.
Though he is a sophomore for 2016, Ridley is 21 years old. He ran a 4.35 in the 40-yard dash during Alabama’s spring testing. Pro Football Focus ranked Ridley as the 48th-best player in college football heading into this season.
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“He’s faster than Amari Cooper,” ESPN analyst Tom Luginbill said recently. “Calvin Ridley is the most dangerous wide receiver in the SEC West this season.”
Ridley got his chance last year after teammate Robert Foster was lost for the season after suffering a shoulder injury in Bama’s loss to Ole Miss. Phil Steele actually ranks Foster ahead of Ridley going into 2016. Steele has Foster at No. 18 and Ridley at No. 19 on his list of top wide receivers eligible for the NFL Draft in 2017.
Lindy’s has Ridley ranked much higher, however. It ranks Ridley No. 2 behind USC’s JuJu Smith-Schuster on its list of the nation’s top wide receivers. And the Sporting News had Ridley as a first-team member of its pre-season All-America team.
Kentucky travels to Tuscaloosa to play Alabama on Oct. 1.
2. Fred Ross, Mississippi State: The Tyler, Texas native had a breakout season in 2015, catching 88 passes for 1,007 yards and five touchdowns. That caused Lindy’s to rank Ross as the ninth-best receiver in college football heading into the 2016 season.
The 6-2, 207-pound junior caught just nine passes in 2013 and 30 in 2014, before becoming Dak Prescott’s primary target last season. He caught 11 passes for 103 yards at Texas A&M, 11 passes for 115 yards at Missouri, 10 passes for 154 yards at Arkansas and 12 passes for 117 yards against Ole Miss.
Phil Steele ranks Ross as the 11th-best wide receiver who is eligible for the 2017 NFL Draft. It should be noted, however, that Ross’ production could easily fall off given State’s quarterback situation. Head coach Dan Mullen needs to find a clear starter to replace Prescott, who basically rewrote the MSU record book.
Ross caught just two passes for 11 yards in State’s 42-16 win over Kentucky last year. The Bulldogs come to Commonwealth Stadium on Oct. 22 this year.
3. O.J. Howard, Alabama: The Crimson Tide tight end burst on the national scene with a monster national championship game against Clemson when Howard caught five passes for 208 yards, averaging 41.6 yards per catch, plus two touchdowns, his first scores of the season.
Howard caught a 25-yard pass on a third-and-three in the first quarter. He caught a 53-yard touchdown in the third quarter, then TDs of 51 and 63 yards in the fourth quarter.
On the year, Howard caught 38 passes for 602 yards, more than doubling the 31 receptions he made his first two seasons. Howard caught 14 passes as a freshman in 2013 and 17 in 2014. Phil Steele ranks Howard as the No. 1 tight end in the nation eligible for the 2017 NFL Draft. Lindy’s ranks him at No. 4 among the nation’s tight ends. The Sporting News chose Howard as the tight end on its pre-season All-America second team.
At 6-6, 242 pounds, the Prattville, Alabama native is a load, so why he wasn’t he more productive in the past? There was talk that Howard wasn’t a good enough blocker, but he did see plenty of playing time. He just wasn’t the target for many of Alabama’s passes. After Howard decided to forgo the NFL and come back to Tuscaloosa for his senior season, he should be a prime target in 2016.
4. Terry Godwin, Georgia: A five-star recruit out of Hogansville, Georgia, Godwin came on strong at the end of last season, earning MVP honors in Georgia’s 24-17 win over Penn State in the Taxslayer Bowl. On a trick play, Godwin threw a 44-yard touchdown pass to Malcolm Mitchell, then later caught a 17-yard TD pass.
With leading receiver Mitchell graduated, Godwin is expected to be the favorite target for whomever quarterback new head coach Kirby Smart and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney chose. He caught eight passes for 78 yards in the regular season finale against Georgia Tech, then four passes for 34 yards against Penn State.
Pro Football Focus rated Godwin as having the best hands in the SEC after he did not have a single drop to go with his 35 receptions. Godwin also ran the ball out of the wildcat last year, gaining 26 yards on four carries against UK. He should more of a pass-catching role in 2016.
“We gotta go deep and make some completions in the vertical passing game. Terry give us that,” Smart said of the 5-11, 170-pounder. “He plays with a swagger and toughness you want.”
Georgia visits Commonwealth Stadium to play Kentucky on Nov. 5.
5. James Quick, Louisville: The former Trinity star enters his senior season having caught 39 passes for 624 yards and five touchdowns last year. Quick caught 36 passes for 566 yards as a sophomore in 2014 and six passes for 73 yards as a freshman.
Quick had a big game against Kentucky last season, grabbing four balls for 94 yards and a touchdown. He caught a 38-yard pass from Lamar Jackson in the first quarter that set up U of L’s first TD as the Cards climbed back from a 21-0 deficit. Quick also caught a 35-yard TD with two seconds left in the third quarter that tied the game at 24. Louisville won 38-24.
He caught four passes for 71 yards in Lousiville’s win over Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl. During the regular season, Quick’s most productive game came at Florida State where he caught five passes for 130 yards.
The first player in Kentucky history to score a touchdown in four straight state championship games, Quick was the MVP of the U.S. Army All-American game. That brought high expectations which to this point Quick hasn’t quite met. That could change in 2016. Phil Steele has Quick rated at No. 31 on his list of top wide receivers eligible for the 2017 NFL Draft.
This year’s UK-U of L game is set for Nov. 26 at Louisville’s Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
Top receivers by yards against Kentucky in 2015