Jump ball: How a basketball player might be the key to UK's offense (in football)
Kentucky began life after Benny Snell on Saturday against Toledo knowing that the passing game had to step up. With only one returning player with more than 10 catches, who would the Wildcats look for downfield? Turned out it was the basketball player who is great at drawing penalties. What? Ahmad Wagner, on a team of unlikely stars, might become the most unlikely.
The Ahmad Wagner Experience is here! pic.twitter.com/bH5lWqe1pA
— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) August 31, 2019
Wagner was a basketball and football star at Wayne High School in Ohio — mostly a basketball star since he played just 1 year of football. But his 6-5 frame and athleticism helped him catch 58 passes for 1,028 yards and 17 touchdowns in that year. Nevertheless, Wagner chose hoops and went to the University of Iowa, where he played 3 seasons under coach Fran McCaffery. He averaged 3.1 points per game and won the Most Improved Player award as a sophomore.
But after 3 years of hoops, Wagner decided it was time to return to the gridiron. At Kentucky. As a graduate transfer, he was eligible right away. The verdict on Wagner last season was that he was skilled but raw.
When Kentucky trailed by a score with 2 seconds to play at Missouri, it was Wagner who UK QB Terry Wilson looked for on the game’s final play. Using his size to essentially box out the Mizzou defender, Wagner caught a floating pass only to come down out of bounds … but then, in came a flag. Pass interference, Missouri (and Kentucky won on an untimed down on the next play). Indeed, Wagner was targeted 4 times in 2018. Three times, the defensive back was flagged for pass interference.
Fast forward to 2019. Wagner is being looked to as much more than a human penalty magnet — he could be the complete receiver who helps UK replicate last season’s results. Wagner had his first extended playing time in the opener against Toledo, and twice more, Wilson looked his way on deep balls down the sideline. Twice more, Toledo DBs were flagged for pass interference.
Wagner laughed when asked after the Toledo game if he tries to draw those penalties.
“I’m always just trying to make a good play,” Wagner said. He later elaborated that his basketball experience could have some role in the multitude of flags drawn. “I think it just comes from me being aggressive and just going for the ball every time.”
A multitude of penalties aside, Wagner contributed in other ways in UK’s opener. He made his first collegiate catch in the first quarter for a 5-yard gain. After the two penalties, Wilson went back to Wagner in the third quarter. He caught a short pass, then spun up field, fought through a couple of Toledo defenders, and exploded down the sideline for a 40-yard gain, tying for the longest play of UK’s day. In the fourth quarter, he caught another pass for a first down, ending up with 3 catches for 57 yards. With the 2 pass interference flags, Wagner contributed nearly 100 yards in his first extended playing time in Lexington. How good was he? Good enough that he’ll start in Week 2 against Eastern Michigan.
“We saw flashes of that during camp,” UK coach Mark Stoops said, “and felt like he could be a tough matchup for some people.”
QB Terry Wilson saw that tough matchup, and enjoyed exploiting it, saying of Wagner, “He’s been doing some big things, and … he showed what type of player he is when he gets the ball in his hands.”
Given the success of smaller, speedier Lynn Bowden in Lexington, Wagner might fill a need as the rangy outside receiver Kentucky has been seeking. It’s been quite a transition from basketball at Iowa to football in the SEC, and in his second year of college football, from the guy who draws flags to the guy who might be a difference-maker.