With the run-heavy offense the Kentucky Wildcats carried out in the second half this season, the wide receivers became sort of an afterthought. That’s made obvious by the fact that the Wildcats’ leading receiver was their quarterback.
But behind Lynn Bowden on the receiving yards leaderboard for UK was Wagner — a guy you almost feel bad for.
The former Iowa Hawkeyes basketball player had an unconventional road to this point in his career. He played one season of high school football — basketball was his primary sport, as evidenced by his decision to play basketball at Iowa.
His college football career was about as unconventional as his road back to the sport, as his first season saw him draw three pass interference calls on four targets for the whole season. He burst onto the scene early in his second season, only to see his targets evaporate as quarterback injuries forced the Cats to turn to a run-centered offense.
Wagner’s numbers were rather unimpressive: 15 catches, 254 yards and two touchdowns in eight games. But UK only threw the ball 252 times this year. When you cut the scale down to Wagner’s level of usage, he was the only player in the SEC to have 250-plus receiving yards on 15 or fewer catches.
Wagner also would’ve ranked sixth in the conference in yards per reception if he’d had enough catches to qualify for the leaderboard.
And that’s the unfortunate part for Wagner: between battling injury and a shift to a run-heavy offense, his production dropped off the map quickly after he’d played his way into the NFL Draft conversation.
Here’s Wagner’s statline through his first three games:
- 9 catches, 198 yards, 2 touchdowns
That’s pretty good; good enough for him to be top 15 in the SEC in receiving yards at that point in the year.
Here’s his statline through his final five games:
- 6 catches, 56 yards, 0 touchdowns
Not so good. In fact, that landed him 112th in the conference in receiving yards over UK’s final 10 games.
Wagner would’ve been a commodity for UK’s offense if they’d thrown the ball more. At 6-foot-5-inches, there were few cornerbacks who could cover him. He made that clear.
Wagner’s size was a major factor in his pass-catching accomplishments. That’s to be expected from someone with the height of a former basketball player.
And his size was a huge plus for UK’s offense even when he wasn’t catching passes. He drew three pass interference calls on his first four targets as defensive backs did anything they could to keep him from the ball.
But when Bowden shifted to quarterback, Wagner became a blocker instead of a pass catcher. And with the huge drop-off in production that Wagner saw as a Wildcat, his situation is weird. He wasn’t projected to be drafted (not in the NFL or NBA — he averaged just 3.1 points and 2.6 rebounds per game as a Hawkeye basketball player).
Some projections have Wagner playing tight end in the NFL, though the Bears are absolutely stacked at the position, so perhaps they view him as wide receiver.
With his size and the upside he showed early in the 2019 season at UK, Wagner has the potential to make an impact in the NFL someday. Let’s hope the Bears plan on investing the time and effort into Wagner that it will take for him to become an NFL contributor.