By LARRY VAUGHT
After playing a receiver at quarterback for eight games in 2019, it seems almost ludicrous to wonder if the Kentucky offense can be as productive in 2020 when the Cats figure to have a traditional quarterback — hopefully 2018 starter Terry Wilson who led UK to 10 wins before getting hurt in the second game last year.
“That’s a great question to ask at the beginning of year when we get started,” Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said.
Wilson was tore a knee ligament in the second game of the 2019 season and won’t be ready to participate in spring practice.
“He will be there but not able to go through full blown drills,” Gran said. “So how healthy will he be when we start in August? We have to develop other guys. What we did learn with Lynn (Bowden) is that we have packages we can use with Terry and Sawyer (Smith) as well and do some stuff. We might not be as explosive but there are different things we can do.”
Bowden did a lot. He rushed for a SEC best 1,468 yards in just eight games and averaged an incredible 7.94 yards per carry, best in the SEC. He ran for 13 touchdowns and led the winning touchdown drive in the Belk Bowl. As a team, Kentucky ran for 3,624 yards and ranked fourth nationally with 278.8 yards per game. The Cats had four players rush for over 500 yards.
Kentucky ran for 517 yards against Louisville, 462 against UT-Martin and 401 in their three final regular-season games and got 331 more in the Belk Bowl against Virginia Tech.
“You always want to be great and what was so amazing after Terry got hurt and then Sawyer was everybody on offense, both coaches and players, bought in to find a way to win,” UK co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw said. “We were able to do that and it’s something we will remember forever.
“We can incorporate a lot of stuff we did next year as we move forward. It’s exciting knowing that. My job will be to get the quarterbacks ready to play. We are going to throw the ball more obviously but we also know we have to run the football. You can control time and the game that way. Just look at that last drive (in the Belk Bowl) that took 18 plays, 8 1/2 minutes. That is what is fun and we’ve got the pieces back to run the football.”
Hinshaw said UK’s quarterback, or quarterbacks depending on injuries, have to execute the play-action pass as well as the RPO (run-pass option) to make the run game work.
“I would love to be No. 1 in the SEC in rushing again,” Hinshaw said.
That would require UK’s receivers to sacrifice again like they had to do after Wilson and then Smith got hurt. Bowden through 74 passes in eight games and only completed 35 — and two came on the final game-winning TD drive in the Belk Bowl including the winning touchdown pass.
“I don’t know how many passes we even threw the last six or seven games but it wasn’t many. Our receiver had to stay motivated, run routes and be ready but it didn’t work out (to pass). We played four monsoon rain games was one reason,” Gran said. “But they all wanted to win. They knew the circumstances and really believed in Lynn. That actually says a lot about coach (Mark) Stoops and the culture he’s built here.”
When Kentucky was shredding defenses with the run late in the season, the receivers often made key blocks on big runs by Bowden, A.J. Rose and others.
“I think at the end of the year our perimeter blocking was fantastics. They (receivers) knew their role and wanted to win and it meant something to them,” Gran said. “I bet we had more big runs than almost any team in the country because of our perimeter blocking.”
That’s just one thing high school coaches and players across the country might have noticed. More importantly, Kentucky has won 32 games the last four years, including 18 the last two seasons that both ended with bowl victories.
“There’s no doubt we notice a difference in the perception of UK football when we are out recruiting now,” Hinshaw said. “It’s incredible the response we get from different coaches all over the country. But we still have to roll up our shirt sleeves and go to work every day. You can never take success for granted or know what adjustments you may have to make to be successful like we found out this past season.”