No matter what cut, what stop, what turn Lynn Bowden made, he just couldn’t ditch Mike Edwards.
Bowden threw an elbow. He swatted away the Kentucky safety’s arm. He stepped on Edwards’ toes a bit.
It was an especially spirited drill in a practice just before the start of the season that had members of UK’s secondary trying to prevent the Cats’ wide receivers from catching passes coming their way.
After a few rounds of the drill, Edwards had won a couple and Bowden had made an impressive catch despite the pressure from the senior defensive back. There was more than a little verbal back-and-forth along the way, too.
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“It’s camp. It’s going to happen,” smiled cornerback Lonnie Johnson when asked about the exchanges between UK’s wide-outs and defensive backs this preseason. “But we’re just training their minds, getting them ready for their next opponent.”
Of Kentucky’s 13 scholarship wide receivers, nine are either freshmen or sophomores. It’s a young group with a lot to learn about playing in the Southeastern Conference.
Coach Mark Stoops said as much after the opener when he called on that position group to “pick it up and play a little better.”
That group got slightly more praise after the big win at No. 25 Florida.
“Receivers ran better, just running, just sprinting, just playing fast was helpful,” Stoops said Monday. “I thought those guys really played unselfish. They played really tough on the perimeter, very physical. We’ll continue to work on the pass game and getting opportunities.”
There’s work to do in general for UK’s offense through the air. Through two games, the Cats have the worst passing offense in the conference, averaging 139.5 yards per game and 6.5 yards per attempt.
Part of that is breaking in a new quarterback in Terry Wilson and part of that is getting the wide receivers up to speed. Kentucky’s defensive backs have been trying to do their part since the start of camp in August.
“They’re challenging our wide receivers. They’re challenging our quarterbacks because they’re making the targets really, really hard,” UK co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw said recently of the Cats’ secondary. “So I’m excited we’re getting to go against these guys and the wide-outs are getting better and better and better with that. The secondary helps us with that tremendously.”
With four players in the main defensive back rotation taller than 6-foot-2 and none shorter than 6-foot, they make it difficult for the wide receivers to get open and force them to make contested catches.
“Their experience, but not only that, they’re huge and long,” Hinshaw said of how the secondary challenges UK’s offense. “All of them. ... I’m glad we don’t have to go against them in a game because they’re so long.”
Sophomore Josh Ali has learned a lot from cornerbacks like Chris Westry “because of his long arms” and Derrick Baity “because he’s so smart and knows the position so well.
“It’s good to go against big, physical guys and if I can go against them, I know I can go against anybody in the SEC,” Ali said.
For his part, Baity said he tries to share tips of the defensive back trade with the younger receivers.
“We challenge them, we tell them our weaknesses, stuff they can take advantage of in certain coverages,” the senior said. “We try to (show) them how to exploit it.”
Saturday’s game against Murray State (0-2) might provide a place for UK’s wide receivers to show off what they’ve learned and what they can do. Opponents are completing 67.7 percent of their passes against the Racers and averaging 226 yards per game through the air after two games.
It could be a chance to get more receivers involved, too. Only six have caught a pass in two games this season and four of those players (Dorian Baker, Tavin Richardson, Josh Ali and Clevan Thomas) have just one catch each.
Getting the passing game going — creating a more balanced offense — is a goal for UK in the coming weeks, Stoops said Monday. It also means the rest of the offense has some things to clean up, too.
“The ability to spread people out and play with 3-4 wide receivers comes from being better across the board with the football and protecting and throwing and creating things.”
Murray State at Kentucky
TV: SEC Network alternate