2:59:53 Belk Bowl

The Kentucky offense gets in formation during the Belk Bowl against Virginia Tech on Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019, at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina. Kentucky won 37-30. Photo by Jordan Prather | Staff

As Kentucky football gears to face Auburn on Sept. 26, several questions exist on the offensive side of the ball.

The first is perhaps the elephant in the room: Kentucky no longer has Lynn Bowden Jr. as a do-it-all offensive centerpiece. The Paul Hornung Award winner’s 2,272 all-purpose yards from the Cats’ 2019 campaign will be sorely missed. He contributed in every facet of the offensive attack and return game and was uber-talented, making it impossible to replace him with just one player. Instead, Mark Stoops and offensive coordinator Eddie Gran will be forced to replace Bowden by committee, starting on the ground, where Kentucky’s options are far from limited.

A backfield rotation that includes senior A.J. Rose and redshirt sophomores Chris Rodriguez Jr. and Kavosiey Smoke is tasked with that duty. The trio is diverse in its talents; Rose had the most touches in 2019 and served as more of a bruising, between-the-tackles runner while Smoke and Rodriguez raced to the boundary and turned up field. Each back showed explosiveness, as they all averaged 5.5 yards per carry – led by Rodriguez with 7.5 yards per tote – and scored six touchdowns apiece. After combining for 1,926 yards last year, the trio is set up to see an expanded role in Kentucky’s offense.

7:43:38 UKvsUTFB2019

Kentucky Wildcats running back AJ Rose (10) tries to break free from a tackle during the Kentucky vs. Tennessee football game on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, at Kroger Field in Lexington, Kentucky. UK lost 17-13. Photo by Michael Clubb | Staff

In the aerial attack, Josh Ali is looking to build off a strong season finale. The Cats didn’t have much of a passing game last season, but when they did throw the ball, Ali was the primary benefactor. He is the team’s leading returner in all receiving categories and caught the game-winning touchdown pass from Bowden in the Belk Bowl. Clevan Thomas, Bryce Oliver and Allen Dailey shape up to be solid contributors on the outside with Ali, while Keaton Upshaw and Justin Rigg will serve as the top two options at tight end.

After losing Benny Snell Jr. and Lynn Bowden Jr. in successive seasons, the Cats find themselves in a relatively unfamiliar position without a true undisputed alpha dog to lead the offense. Junior quarterback Terry Wilson is the consensus pick to fill that role. He’s coming off of a devastating knee injury in 2019, but the team has faith that he has fully recovered and is ready to follow up on the 10-3 season he was under center for the year prior. With Sawyer Smith failing to impress while playing through injury last year, and transfer Joey Gatewood still waiting to have his eligibility ruled upon, the starting job appears squarely in Terry’s hands. He showed good progression from 2018 through his first two games last year, and will bring much needed balance to the Wildcat offense if he can demonstrate that ability once again.

The biggest constant on the offense remains in the trenches. Kentucky returned an astounding four out of their five starters on the offensive line. This same core which paved the way for Bowden Jr. and co. to become the fourth-best ground attack in 2019 is now Pro Football Focus’s top-graded SEC line (returning players), despite Logan Stenberg now being in the NFL. Landon Young and Drake Jackson are ready to anchor the unit once more, providing clear alleyways for the talented Cats’ backfield and plenty of time for Wilson in the pocket.

Kentucky has been successful with an essentially run-only attack, but it has not beat the SEC’s best with that strategy. If Wilson can bring that balance to the attack, Kentucky has the talent to compete at the highest level over the course of this tougher, SEC-only slate.