Kentucky football: 4 most critical position battles for 2020
Coming off the team’s 4th consecutive bowl appearance, Kentucky loses playmaker Lynn Bowden but only 11 seniors from the 2019 squad and returns the vast majority of their offensive and defensive contributors.
Seven starters will return on defense and 8 on offense, but Kentucky still has some spicy position battles to get sorted out for the 2020 campaign.
Wilson vs. Gatewood (?) vs. Smith vs. freshmen
What to expect: Kentucky lost QB Terry Wilson in the team’s 2nd game of the season to a torn left patellar tendon. In his UK career, Wilson has completed 67% of his passes for 2,249 yards and 13 touchdowns, and has added 591 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground. The dual-threat QB is 12-3 as a starter and would seem to be the odds-on favorite to regain his job, assuming he’s somewhere near full strength by fall practice.
Enter Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood, who probably will miss the 2020 season — unless the NCAA allows him immediate eligibility after his transfer. The 4-star QB prospect was in a battle with Bo Nix for the Auburn starting job throughout fall camp 2019, but transferred after he lost that battle. Obviously, if Gatewood can’t play right away, then he’s a non-factor in 2020, but if he can play, it’ll be hard to keep him off the field.
Add in backup Sawyer Smith, who was sharp against Florida before suffering a bevy of injuries. There’s also a group of freshmen — redshirt Nik Scalzo (torn ACL), redshirt Amani Gilmore (kind of a long-term prospect), or true frosh Beau Allen, who is a highly regarded recruit.
Projected winner: Wilson, although if Gatewood can play, Kentucky will be hard pressed to not use both in some way.
Ali vs. Thomas vs. Oliver vs. freshmen
What to expect: Kentucky’s passing game was basically laid to rest late in Week 5 when receiver Lynn Bowden became UK’s quarterback. Bowden’s 30 catches for 348 yards led the team for the season. Of Kentucky’s rarely used receivers, junior Josh Ali was the best. Ali caught 23 passes for 233 yards and 3 touchdowns, including the game-winner in the Belk Bowl.
Clevan Thomas was a sophomore who had excellent chemistry with Bowden. His 11 catches for 99 yards would be meager stats for many teams, but he ranks 2nd among UK’s returning receivers, and he’s very solid in the slot. Bryce Oliver had a big game in Kentucky’s preseason Blue/White game and has big-play ability on the edge.
Kentucky adds some interesting freshmen, including Ohio target Kalil Branham and Michigan native Earnest Sanders. Both have been singled out as potential immediate impact players for the Wildcats. In any case, there’s time for all of these players, but given the loss of Bowden, Kentucky will presumably pass the ball now and again in 2020 and will need a big-play receiver to emerge.
Projected winner: Ali is the likely standout target, but don’t be surprised to see even 3 or four4of the players mentioned above hauling in more passes than the 23 that Ali grabbed last year. Specifically, look for Ali to be UK’s top target on the edge and Thomas to make plays over the middle of the field.
Poore vs. Ruffolo vs. Wald
What to expect: For the 2nd season in a row, Kentucky struggled greatly in the kicking game. While Matt Ruffolo made a 50-yarder and Chance Poore connected from 46, they combined to miss 4 extra points and go 9-for-14 on field goals. The kicking job is basically wide open — and pivotal in 2020.
Poore was highly touted out of South Carolina 2 recruiting classes ago, but after a trial run in 2018 and last season, he’s 7-for-13 on field goals with 3 misses inside of 40 yards, including a 35-yarder late in last season’s Florida loss that could have won the game for UK. His leg strength is impressive, but his accuracy has been shaky.
Ruffolo is a walk-on who made 4-of-5 field goal tries, but also missed 2 extra points and wasn’t entirely consistent on accuracy either. His 50-yarder shows that he does have SEC range, but he has to be more consistent to win the job.
Walk-on freshman Graham Wald will compete for the job. Wald has a strong leg, but it certainly remains to be seen whether he can help right away.
Projected winner: Poore has the ability, but having failed to grab the job over walk-ons twice, it’s unclear how many more chances he’ll have. Don’t be surprised if Ruffolo kicks field goals and Wald begins by handling kickoffs, where UK loses senior specialist Grant McKinniss. If Wald comes along well, he might see some extra point or field goal work as well.
McCall vs. Abadi-Fitzgerald vs. Rogers vs. Hayes
What to expect: The subtext here is who might be the next Kentucky defender to emerge seemingly from nowhere. Senior Calvin Taylor went from being a 2-star recruit to almost leading the SEC in sacks (8.5, to go with 36 tackles and 4 passes broken up). There’s a spot here for a big body, and whoever wins the job could put up some numbers.
Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald backed up Taylor last year, although he had only 4 tackles as Taylor got most of the snaps. Still, he has 3 years of experience in the program on his side and the Nigerian import could well emerge.
On the other hand, Marquan McCall has played nose tackle, and given his 371-pound frame, he certainly fits there. McCall has backed up equally massive Quinton Bohanna, but the temptation to have 2 huge, athletic guys on the line might be too much to avoid. McCall had 21 tackles and 4 tackles for loss in 2019. If he can get in better shape, he will see the field somewhere.
That said, elite recruits Justin Rogers (Michigan) and Josaih Hayes (Mississippi) are both 300+ pound 4-star standouts who’ll be hard to keep off the field. One or both are likely to see time sooner rather than later.
Projected winner: The temptation to play McCall with, rather than behind, Bohanna might just win out — particularly in running situations when having 730 pounds plugging the middle of the line has to be tempting. Over the long haul, Rogers and/or Hayes will see more and more time. Abadi-Fitzgerald might start in week one, but by the end of the year, it figures that either McCall will shift over or one of the freshmen will claim the job.