From afterthought to captain, Kentucky's Josh Ali working on a season to remember
Twitter smack talk is certainly nothing new. But this was an odd one. The recruit, Jordan Watkins, was a talented wide receiver who had committed to Kentucky, and when that relationship went into a deep freeze, he ended up committed to Louisville. During the spring of 2020, before he enrolled at U of L, Watkins had something to get off his chest.
“I wonder what it’s like to go to college to play WR and block the whole time,” Watkins wrote. “Couldn’t be me.”
The trash talk felt odd because Kentucky has beaten Louisville by a 101-23 margin in the past 2 seasons — even while passing for exactly 4 yards in the 2019 game. But behind the snark, there really was a point. It takes a different kind of player to dedicate himself to an offense where a wide receiver was essentially a wide-set left tackle. It takes a player like Josh Ali. Even if he has something else to show.
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Like so many of Kentucky’s most significant recruits, Josh Ali was an under-the-radar guy. At 6-foot even and 180 pounds, Ali wasn’t big enough to be an outside guy, or speedy enough to be a top-ranked slot receiver. He ended as 247sports’s 719th-ranked player in the nation, drawing offers from a few schools like West Virginia, Iowa and Louisville. He committed early to Kentucky, where he was ranked around the middle of the Wildcats’ class, well behind receivers Lynn Bowden and JaVonte Richardson.
Playing time wasn’t easy to find in Lexington at first. Ali did play as a true freshman, standing out enough to avoid redshirting, but he caught just 3 passes in the 2017 season. He played more in 2018, catching 10 passes, including his first career touchdown. Kentucky’s run-heavy offense limited Ali’s touches, but so did the receivers playing in front of him.
But in 2019, Ali started every game. With Terry Wilson in his second season as a starter, Kentucky looked to diversify its offense, and lean more heavily on its passing game. Until Wilson blew out his knee late in Week 2. So then, Kentucky planned to run a passing game with Troy transfer Sawyer Smith. Smith immediately started sustaining injury after injury, until late in the South Carolina game, it became apparent to the coaches that he couldn’t play more. Ali had caught 12 passes in the season’s first 5 games … but that was soon to become a memory.
Lynn Bowden would play quarterback. Kentucky’s offense would go from run-heavy to virtually run-exclusive. As a junior leader, Ali became a lead blocker instead of a leading target. And he took that change … well, just fine actually.
Ali blocked and blocked … and while helping Bowden become one of the most dangerous rushers in college football, Ali still occasionally showed flashes of what he could do as a receiver. Ali caught 11 passes and a pair of touchdowns while Bowden played quarterback. That might not sound impressive, but considering that Bowden completed 35 passes for 3 touchdowns total, it gives an idea of how important Ali was in Kentucky’s rarely-seen, but occasionally pivotal passing game.
Never was Ali’s impact bigger than the Belk Bowl, when he made 2 catches on the game-winning drive. The 13-yard scoring pass in the final seconds got headlines, but it was an earlier diving 4th-down grab that showed Ali’s receiving bona fides to anyone who paid enough attention to see them. “I was prepared for the situation any day,” Ali said after the game. “It came. This was the big game and I made it happen.”
Ali was clear that while he had sacrificed for the team, he had something else in mind.
“I really want us to be better,” he said of the upcoming 2020 season after the Belk Bowl. “I want us to do more … I just want more.”
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Ali’s competitive drive and sacrifice have not gone unnoticed by those within the program.
“You never had to worry about that guy working,” said Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran. “He works his tail off. I used him as an example the other day. You can control one thing — and that’s your attitude.”
Mark Stoops singled out Ali during the COVID pandemic as a team leader who had been “on the phone … challenging guys to do right.” During fall camp, Ali was chosen as a team captain.
When Kentucky kicked off last week at Auburn, there were few players who had more to prove than Ali. After sitting and blocking, the senior receiver was ready to start catching. And he did — a career-high 9 receptions for 98 yards led Kentucky’s offensive attack.
Ali showed the total package — grabbing screen passes and making defenders miss, catching passes in the seam, and even working outside for a 33 yard gain. Ali’s big day was a welcome surprise — but he was far from satisfied after Kentucky’s loss.
“I made a lot of mistakes,” Ali said Tuesday, “It’s a couple of plays that I could have made … that would have changed the game.”
“Honestly, I believe that we beat ourselves,” Ali said.
Saturday’s game against Ole Miss figures to be a challenge. Kentucky is a slight home favorite, but the Rebels’ offense looked explosive in Week 1, while Kentucky’s looked prone to mistakes. Not to worry. Wherever reinvention has been needed, Josh Ali has taken the initiative. From afterthought to run blocker to captain and playmaker, Ali’s been ready to make a change. If there’s anybody likely to take big role in flipping the offensive script from Week 1 to Week 2, it’s Ali.