With Terry Wilson back, who will be Kentucky's go-to receiver in 2020?
Kentucky won’t have James Bond or Austin Powers lining up at wide receiver this fall — but at times, it might seem like they could. After a 2019 season in which Kentucky’s offense was forced to be reinvented into Service Academy Offense 2.0 (run, run, and run again), one thing nobody’s too sure of is who will step up catching passes in 2020.
But here are half a dozen top candidates to stop being men of mystery in Lexington — and instead, to be UK’s top pass-catching threat.
The Story: A senior, Ali is the guy who has shown the most promise. He caught 23 passes for 233 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2019 — numbers that are humble, except that he was playing for a team that had 4 games in its last 8 with 25 or fewer total passing yards. Ali had good chemistry with emergency QB Lynn Bowden — enough so that Bowden sought out Ali for the Belk Bowl-winning touchdown pass. While he doesn’t have great size or speed, Ali is a solid all-around target, who can make a tough catch (ex: his 4th-down grab in the Belk Bowl, which set up the winning score).
The Outlook: Ali will definitely be a key component of the Kentucky passing game. Lacking game-breaking size or speed, he’ll probably make some catches on the outside and in the slot. He’s grabbed 36 passes in his UK career, and could easily equal that mark in 2020.
Michael Drennen II
The Story: The 4-star prospect from Ohio has the resume to step into the shoes of one Lynn Bowden in the Kentucky receiving corps. Drennen figures to be a threat as a rusher, receiver, and possibly kick returner in his true freshman campaign. The subject of a fierce recruiting battle, Drennen is UK’s highest-rated pass-catcher since … well … Bowden.
The Outlook: While Drennen might have the skills to stand out right away, it might not bode well for the veterans on the depth chart if he’s relied upon too frequently. He’s not listed on the 2-deep for the opener, though Stoops said he might play. Kentucky would love to see flashes of future greatness from Drennen, but they probably hope to bring him along somewhat slowly in 2020. Still, speed kills, and Drennen has plenty of it.
The Story: UK fans can be forgiven if they need a second to remember Epps. After playing as a true freshman in 2017 and starting 2 games the following season, the rangy 6-2 athlete was a likely starter in 2019 — until a foot injury caused him to miss the season. The redshirt junior caught 4 passes for 97 yards in the 2019 Blue-White spring game, including a 60-yarder from Terry Wilson. But of course, Wilson played a game and a half in 2019, and Epps played none. Now that both are back, Epps could well be the X-factor in UK’s offense. He’s listed as a backup on the depth chart.
The Outlook: As one of UK’s taller and most experienced targets, Epps may be the deep-ball threat UK needs. He may not catch the most passes, but could end up among the team leaders in receiving yardage and touchdowns.
The Story: Oliver was something on an under-the-radar recruit who redshirted in 2018, but then showed out at the 2019 Blue-White game with 8 catches for 105 yards and a touchdown. Impressively, Oliver hauled in passes for both squads — meaning, he had no trouble locking horns with a secondary that ended up being one of the best in the SEC. During the 2019 season, Oliver’s productivity was hampered by UK’s passing-game shortcomings. He caught 6 passes for 111 yards, although that did include a 32-yard touchdown in the opener and a 44 yard game against Missouri. He’s listed as the starting X receiver for Saturday’s opener at Auburn.
The Outlook: Oliver opened eyes in the spring of 2019 with his ability to go get 50/50 balls in traffic. Of all the returning UK receivers, he might be the one who benefits most from a more balanced offense. In a season without non-conference cupcake opponents, Oliver’s physical ruggedness could cause a stir in the SEC.
The Story: After a couple of seasons of getting lost in the shuffle, Thomas played well down the stretch of the 2019 season. Of course, playing well for an offense that passed for even 100 yards just once in the final 8 games of the season meant a fair amount of blocking and catching the occasional short pass from the slot. The 5-11 Thomas made a key touchdown grab against Arkansas, and also picked up 40 yards on a short pass against Vandy. He caught 11 passes for 99 yards but did most of his damage late in the season. He’s listed as a starting flanker.
The Outlook: Thomas could lead the team in catches. His sure hands and ability to get open in small spaces will bode well for an offense that still figures to be fairly conservative. Despite being one of UK’s smaller receivers, he’s also a surprisingly physical blocker, which will help him stay on the field.
The Story: A pass-catching tight end, the 6-6, 255-pound Upshaw showed his skill set early last season, when UK’s passing game was still somewhat intact. In the first 4 games, the redshirt freshman caught 6 passes for 70 yards, with a touchdown against Florida. Unfortunately, when Kentucky went to the ground-and-pound attack with Bowden, veteran tight end Justin Rigg saw more snaps — and Upshaw caught only 1 pass for the rest of the season.
The Outlook: Upshaw will still split time with Rigg, but he’s speedy enough that UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran could feature both tight ends at once. His size and speed together make Upshaw a mismatch for many SEC linebackers and could lead to him emerging as a standout in 2020.