Kentucky football: 5 most important players returning in 2020
Fresh off a 4th consecutive bowl berth, Kentucky hopes to keep the momentum rolling in 2020. The Wildcats return 8 offensive starters and 7 defensive starters but have to replace do-everything QB/WR Lynn Bowden, nasty OG Logan Stenberg and LB Kash Daniel, among others. While many contemplate the best players on the roster, here at SDS, we’re tracking the guys who are the most important (sometimes, the two overlap).
Here are 5 players most critical to the Wildcats’ success in 2020.
1. Terry Wilson, QB
Kentucky salvaged its 2019 season with Lynn Bowden running a single-wing offense. He’s gone in 2020, and Wilson has to keep opposing defenses honest. It doesn’t hurt Wilson’s chances that he’s 12-3 as a starter at Kentucky.
In not quite 2 full games before his injury last year, he was 33-for-52 passing for 360 yards and 2 touchdowns. On the other hand, in 2 winnable SEC road games after Wilson was injured (Mississippi State and South Carolina), injured backup Sawyer Smith went 26-for-73 for 322 yards and 2 interceptions.
This doesn’t even consider that the pre-injury Wilson was a dangerous running threat as well as a competent passer. Kentucky can’t look to grind out 400 rushing yards at will next season, but a healthy Terry Wilson can balance the offense in a hurry.
2. Landon Young, LT
Young was a 4-star recruit from Lexington who spurned Alabama and Auburn to stay home and star for the Wildcats. After playing his way into a starting role, he missed the 2018 season with a knee injury. Young rebounded and did a solid job in his redshirt junior season in 2019.
Kentucky’s offensive line has emerged as a vital strength during Young’s time on campus. But there’s always been another player grabbing the attention — whether it was Bunchy Stallings during Young’s redshirt year or Logan Stenberg last season. At 6-7 and 321 pounds, Young has NFL size and has flashed NFL skills at times.
If he can put together the season many think he’s capable of, Kentucky’s offense should be sharp again this fall.
3. Josh Ali, WR
Obviously, Kentucky doesn’t plan to be 14th in the SEC in passing again. When top receiver Lynn Bowden became Kentucky’s quarterback, one question was who Bowden could target on his rare passing attempts. As often as not, the answer was Ali, who emerged as the top non-Bowden receiving threat with 23 catches for 233 yards and three scores, including the game-winning grab in the last minute of the Belk Bowl.
Indications are that Kentucky will feature Ali in the slot in 2020, and don’t be surprised if Wilson looks his way early and often. Ali has 36 career catches, but he could top that number in 2020 alone, as he’s the most likely beneficiary of Eddie Gran’s desire to diversify.
4. Jamar Watson, LB
After Josh Allen’s incredible 18 sacks season in 2018, Kentucky quietly featured one of the league’s best pass rushers in 2019, as senior defensive lineman Calvin Taylor had 8.5 sacks to finish near the top of the SEC leaderboard. With Taylor gone, Watson is the most likely heir apparent to Kentucky’s top spot in hassling opposing QBs.
Watson, a 6-3, 242-pound edge rusher from Maryland, has mirrored Allen’s progress, going from 2 sacks in 2017 to 5 in 2018 and 6.5 last season. He also added a team-high 7 QB hurries last year. If Watson can climb into double digits in sacks, he’ll probably play his way into an NFL career and help Kentucky stay competitive in the SEC East.
5. Chris Oats, LB
Middle linebacker Kash Daniel had a somewhat disappointing 2019 season, as the senior battled injuries and distractions that threatened his role as UK’s emotional leader. Oats stepped up during those struggles, starting 2 games in Daniel’s spot and contributing 46 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss. A 4-star recruit from Cincinnati, Oats has had his own issues with consistency.
In terms of physical skills, Oats might have already eclipsed Daniel. But Daniel was first and foremost a leader and the emotional center of Kentucky’s stout 2018 and 2019 defenses. Can Oats grow into a player who is comfortable assuming that role?
If so, watch out for the UK defense in 2020.