Better or worse? Surprising UK offense will have a different look in 2020
Editor’s note: This is the 3rd in a series previewing every SEC East team’s offense. Next: Missouri.
After 2 seasons and 18 wins, Kentucky football would figure to be worried about falling off a rare plateau. Instead, there’s reason to expect even more production, particularly on offense, from the Wildcats in 2020.
Kentucky’s 27.2 points and 392.5 yards per game in 2019 represent workmanlike totals, but those numbers border on amazing considering that the Cats spent two-thirds of the season with a wide receiver playing quarterback, with almost no passing game whatsoever, and having replaced the program’s leading all-time rusher (Benny Snell).
Yes, Kentucky will probably not unveil a 4th-string QB who ends up leading the SEC in rushing in 2020. But Kentucky managed 8 wins and surprising production despite a complete lack of balance. Could a balanced Wildcat offense be even better in 2020? Let’s break it down.
Passing game: Better
First, from a personnel standpoint, it’s hard to not imagine UK improving its passing game. QB Terry Wilson says he is ready to roll following a horrifying patellar tear that ended his 2019 season in Week 2. Wilson, who was 33-for-52 passing for 360 yards and 2 scores before his season was prematurely ended, gives Kentucky some of the game-breaking speed that Lynn Bowden unveiled in his absence and a legitimate passing game that was sorely missing after injuries to both Wilson and then backup Sawyer Smith in Weeks 3 and 4. Transfer Joey Gatewood might be eligible, and if he is, he could impact the situation.
The massive dual-threat Gatewood was compared to Cam Newton at Auburn but left after he lost the starting job to Bo Nix. He’s UK’s highest regarded QB recruit since at least Andre Woodson (and maybe Tim Couch). Whoever plays QB, he’ll top Bowden’s passing numbers. The new QB won’t match Bowden’s electric 1,468 rushing yards, though, but will easily exceed his 403 passing yards.
Kentucky’s offensive line will be more or less intact, losing only guard Logan Stenberg and reserve Mason Wolfe. Meanwhile, veteran center Drake Jackson and tackle Landon Young are massive, experienced standouts. Junior Darian Kinnard doesn’t get as much recognition, but he might end up being the best of the bunch. Kentucky will continue rotating 8 or 9 regular linemen and should be solid up front.
The wide receiver position does have some question marks, after the loss of both leading receiver Bowden (yes, the quarterback and rushing leader also was the leading receiver) and jump-ball specialist Ahmad Wagner. The top returner is senior Josh Ali, whose 23 catches for 233 yards included several big grabs, notably the score to win the Belk Bowl in the final seconds.
Under-utilized targets like slot receiver Clevan Thomas (11 catches for 99 yards) and outside threat Bryce Oliver (6 catches for 111 yards, played well with Wilson in the 2019 Blue/White scrimmage) stand to get many more chances to catch passes, along with incoming standouts like 4-star Ohio product Michael Drennen II, who many are comparing to a young Bowden. Tight ends Keaton Upshaw and Brenden Bates will look to contribute as receivers as not just blockers, and while UK lost some experienced performers, increased opportunities should help the receiving corps.
Rushing Game: (slightly) Worse
This is a tough call, because Kentucky returns 4 starters on the line and the top 3 running backs of the attack that paced the SEC — and all Power 5 teams — in rushing with 278.8 rushing yards per game and an astonishing 6.3 yards per attempt. As noted, Kentucky’s passing attack almost could not help but be better … but how can any offense make up for the loss of a guy like Lynn Bowden?
Bowden not only led the SEC with his 1,468 rushing yards, but he did it by averaging 7.9 yards per carry. Admittedly, Terry Wilson was a solid rusher himself, at least before his traumatic leg injury (547 rushing yards in 2018). But perhaps no player in SEC history has reimagined the rushing QB like Bowden did in 2019. It’s not something UK can replicate because it’s not something we’re likely to see again anytime soon from anybody.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that the ground game isn’t going to fall off a cliff. Returnees senior A.J. Rose (826 rushing yards, 5.5 yards per carry, 6 touchdowns), sophomore Kavosiey Smoke (616 rushing yards, 6.1 yards per carry, 6 touchdowns), and sophomore Christopher Rodriguez (533 rushing yards, 7.5 yards per carry, 6 touchdowns) are all capable of being the featured back on a given day.
Smoke is the burner on the edges, Rodriguez is the power runner in between the tackles, and Rose has a little of both in his bag of tricks. Combining the production of the three yielded just shy of 2,000 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns in 2019 … again, without any real passing game for two-thirds of the season. There’s more depth, but it probably won’t be needed until 2021.
Add in the Big Blue offensive line that flummoxed the league in 2019 (less only head mauler Stenberg) and there’s no reason to think UK will struggle to gain yards, even if not quite as many on the ground as in 2019. Kentucky was 8th in the SEC in 3rd-down conversion rate in 2019, and 9th in 4th-down conversions, and there’s reason to think those numbers might be more pivotal to the team’s ultimate success than leading the SEC in rushing again. UK would gladly take a ground attack that produces 225 or so rushing yards per game if it’s better on 3rd and 4th downs — and that may be exactly how it all shakes out.
Special Teams: Better
With Bowden moved to quarterback, Kentucky’s best return weapon was missing for most of the 2019 season. It’ll be interesting to see who UK goes to this season in the return game. Former walk-on Zach Johnson got some shots in 2019, and broke off a 58-yard return in the rain at Georgia. Senior receiver Josh Ali got some punt return experience, so he might be the man. Don’t overlook some of the newcomers, like Michael Drennen II.
The kicking game has been one big struggle in Kentucky’s otherwise excellent run over the past 2 seasons. Kentucky was 9-for-15 on field goals in 2018 and 9-for-14 in 2019. Sophomore Chance Poore has the leg strength to win the job, having connected on 4-of6 tries from 40+ yards out in 2019. But he also missed a critical 35-yarder late in the Florida loss and a 26-yarder the following week at Mississippi State. Poore and walk-on Matt Ruffolo each missed 2 extra points in 2019. The senior Ruffolo finished the season as the kicker, and he was 4-for-5 on field goals including a 50-yard make against Arkansas. The most consistent kicker probably wins the job (and almost has to improve).
No, UK probably won’t lead the SEC in rushing in 2020. But with an actual downfield passing game, the Wildcats can add balance that the 2019 team couldn’t dream of after the injuries to Terry Wilson and Sawyer Smith.
UK will look to improve on situational offense — turning 3rd downs into 1st downs, and drives into touchdowns rather than (sometimes missed) field goals. UK’s rushing numbers will certainly drop, but their passing numbers should offset that, and help keep opposing defenses a little more on their heels than the 2019 opponents were.
If the offense puts up enough points to win, then how those points are amassed will be basically beside the point. Of all the numbers from 2019, 8 wins is the one UK fans most look to see improved in 2020. If Wilson or Gatewood or both can pass it better, they might deliver on that important stat.