Is Lynn Bowden Jr. the NFL's Next Unicorn?

Is he Taysom Hill 2.0? The next Lamar Jackson? One thing's sure: After his shift from touted receiver to winning SEC quarterback, Bowden has the NFL's attention in a big way.
photo of Adam KramerAdam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterApril 15, 2020

Fearing he might lose access or lose someone their job, Lynn Bowden Jr. stops short of naming the gym he is using to stay in shape during the most important offseason of his life. Preparing for the NFL draft is hard enough. Doing so during a pandemic is enough to turn a stressful situation desperate.

Luckily for him, the people of Youngstown, Ohio, take care of their own. And for their generosity and willingness to look the other way, he gives his discretion in return.

So each day and each night, the former Kentucky star slinks quietly into the gym that's technically closed, the one he won't name.

Bowden can't reschedule the pro day that had to be canceled. Can't un-skip the drills he chose not to participate in at the NFL combine, however much he'd like to undo that decision, given everything that's happened since. Can't work out with a trainer to prepare his body for the next level. Can't go back in time and heal the lingering right hamstring—the reason he held himself out of the February event in the first place.

All he can do is whatever it takes to make sure he's ready.

It's up to the NFL now to decide what to make of the most curious, versatile prospect in the 2020 draft field—where he'll fit into a pro offense.

Last fall, Bowden began the season as Kentucky's No. 1 wide receiver coming off a breakout sophomore year. He ended it as the team's starting quarterback, accumulating more than 1,400 rushing yards in only eight starts. In his last two games alone, he ran for a combined 517 yards.

"If I started the season at quarterback, I'd probably have ended up having a shot at winning the Heisman," Bowden says.

He returned punts. Returned kicks. Caught passes. Ran for touchdowns. Threw touchdowns. And although seemingly every player on the field and every fan in the stands knew he was going to carry the ball on just about every play, Bowden still led Kentucky to a 6-2 record as a starter.

"He could have played defensive back for us and started," Kentucky co-offensive coordinator Eddie Gran says. "It would have taken a couple of weeks, but that's the kind of athlete he is. I haven't said that about anybody, and I've coached for 34 years."

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

At a time when Taysom Hill is defining what a multiposition star looks like for the New Orleans Saints—impacting the game at quarterback and on special teams—Bowden has told NFL teams he'll play anywhere.

He's heard the comparisons to Hill over the past few months. "Some people say it," he says. "But I'm just a different breed. Just more athletic, I guess."

In a class littered with gifted wide receivers ranging in size and speed and traits, this is his edge. And while he waits back home, he knows he offers something no other player in this draft can.

"Versatility," Bowden says. "Nobody else in the draft has that. The stats don't lie. You're just going to have to turn back on the film to see what kind of ballplayer I am.

"That's really the only hope."


The offense had crawled for barely 100 total yards, and the top two quarterbacks (Terry Wilson and Sawyer Smith) were out with injuries. It was late September, and Kentucky was minutes from losing its third game in a row, down 24-0 to South Carolina.

Bowden had pleaded his case to the Wildcats coaches to let him play quarterback throughout the game. Now with the game decided, he made one last push.

"Might as well let me go back there," he told them.

That's when everything changed. Or for Bowden, when it went back to what he was used to.

At Warren G. Harding High School in Warren, Ohio, this was what he was. A wildcat quarterback. A creator. "If he has the ball in his hands, he's going to make some things happen for you," Harding head football coach Steve Arnold says. "I'm talking about returning punts, returning kickoffs, quarterback passes, jet sweeps.

"Shoot, you name it, he can do it."

Whether that kind of offense could work in the SEC, though, was unknown—until he finally talked his way in for the end of that South Carolina game and guided the offense on a five-play, 84-yard touchdown drive.

Kentucky's coaches had already begun devising a series of packages that involved Bowden at quarterback—ways to put the ball in his hands. After seeing what happened against South Carolina, they started to realize they had to go all-in on the plan.

Gran didn't sleep that night. And as the team entered the bye week, he replayed Bowden's drive again and again. The more he thought about it, the more comfortable he became with the idea of moving Bowden to quarterback permanently.

"We went to him and we're like, 'Lynn, unfortunately we can't get you the ball,'" says Kentucky's other co-offensive coordinator, Darin Hinshaw, who's also the quarterbacks coach. "'So the best way to get you the ball is just to snap it to you every time.'"

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - NOVEMBER 16: Lynn Bowden Jr. #1 of the Kentucky Wildcats rolls out of the pocke against the Vanderbilt Commodores at Vanderbilt Stadium on November 16, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Bowden didn't need convincing. While he knew the move would likely eliminate his reps as a wide receiver and thus potentially impact his NFL status, he didn't flinch at it.

"That was the best choice for us," Bowden says. "I knew I had a chance to come out after the year, but I'm a team player. They put their trust in me, and I was going to do anything I need to do to win."

The offense didn't need to be overhauled. Bowden was a viable threat to throw. But there was no secret in what the Wildcats planned to do with him. Throw in plenty of subtle changes and concepts to formations, and let Bowden work.

In his first start two weeks later, Bowden struggled early as Kentucky fell behind 13-0 to Arkansas. But as he settled into his new role, shaking off the nerves, the production flowed.

Bowden finished with 196 rushing yards, 78 passing yards and three touchdowns in Kentucky's 24-20 come-from-behind win.

"I'm 34 years into this thing, and I've never seen one like this," Gran says. "He's special. That's all I can say. He is absolutely special." 


The embodiment of his season and skill set can be found in his final collegiate drive—an 18-play, eight-minute and 10-second masterpiece that resulted in a game-winning touchdown pass.

"I'm on the phone with him as they kicked the field goal to go up by six," Hinshaw says. "And he tells me, 'Coach, put the ball in my hands. Let me carry it every snap. Just put the game on my shoulders. We'll win.'"

Down 30-24 against Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl, Bowden took over. Of the 18 plays on the drive, 12 of them were Bowden runs and three of them Bowden passes.

With 19 seconds left and the ball on the Virginia Tech 13-yard line, Bowden gasped for air during a timeout. The original play call was "Pablo." As Kentucky shuffled to the line of scrimmage, however, Bowden improvised.

"He told me that he was tired and I should run a post," wideout Josh Ali says. "It was completely freestyle."

With Ali facing single coverage, Bowden connected with his target on a perfectly thrown pass in the back of the end zone to secure Kentucky's win.

His 233-yard rushing performance was the culmination of a dazzling junior year: 1,468 rushing yards, 403 passing yards, 348 receiving yards, 220 kickoff-return yards, 53 punt-return yards and 17 touchdowns.

He was second on the roster in passing yards and punt-return yardage and first in rushing, receiving and kick returning.


The idea that a player could take snaps at both quarterback and on special teams in the same NFL game would have been largely unfathomable five years ago. But then again, five years ago Lamar Jackson's brilliant playing style likely would have been too chaotic for many NFL teams—and to some still is.

Evolution primarily has to come not from a team or a coach but from a player worthy of innovation.

For Bowden, who has made it clear he wants as much responsibility on the field as a team is willing to give him, the hope is that his role will be something completely original.  

"Can he go play quarterback and do some things like Lamar is doing right now? I really truly believe he can," Hinshaw says. "I think you can throw him in there. Obviously, they have all their scouts and coaches who are going to have their own opinions of what the kid is. But I'll tell you what, someone is getting a special guy who is going to end up developing into an elite player in the NFL."

Purely as a wide receiver prospect, there is plenty to like. At 5'11" and 204 pounds, Bowden may not have ideal size for the position, but there are few questions about his speed—even though he was unable to run the 40-yard dash because of his hamstring and the canceled workouts.

His elusiveness and shiftiness, though, are what separates him. It's what made him one of the nation's most intriguing wideouts heading into the year. It's also what was most noticeable about his success at quarterback.

"Use him in the slot all day," says Bleacher Report's lead NFL draft writer, Matt Miller, who sees Bowden as a potential third-round selection. "He's awesome at breaking tackles in space and has the juice to score from anywhere."

Others are bound to struggle with the evaluation, relying solely on the film from these past two seasons to determine what role he will fill.

"I love the player," one NFL scout says. "But think our coaches wouldn't know how to use him."


Bryan Woolston/Associated Press

Just last week, Bowden's son, who is also named Lynn, celebrated his third birthday. While draft preparation has impacted the quality time the two have spent together since the season ended, it has not altered Bowden's purpose.

"He has made me go way harder than I ever have," Bowden says. "The extra pep in my step. When I had my son, it made me change for the better. I just want to provide for him for the rest of my life."

The relationship Bowden and his son have built was not something he had growing up. As a child, his father was not involved in his life. It wasn't until high school that he began to attend some of Bowden's games.

While the two have maintained an on-and-off relationship since, Bowden says he hasn't spoken to his father since September. "The Florida game," he says. "That's the last time we really talked. I'm not going to beg anybody to be around. You want to be around, you'll be around."

The absence of a father isn't the only piece of Bowden's childhood he desperately does not want to pass along to his own son. Bowden saw his first shooting at the age of nine. He witnessed firsthand how violence and fighting and crime could impact his future and the future of those around him. And for a while, he was drawn to it. Not because he liked it but because it's all he knew.

"The majority of my family's caught up in it," Bowden says. "That's what I was raised around. That's what they grow up thinking they got to do. Nobody really knows the struggle unless they've lived it and they're from here."

One of the primary reasons Bowden chose Kentucky over Penn State, Michigan or any of the dozens of programs that pursued him comes back to his hometown. Head coach Mark Stoops, associate head coach Vince Marrow and defensive backs coach Steve Clinkscale all grew up near Youngstown.

There's a loyalty to where he's from, even if it might always be associated with some pain. It's why he's still a part of his community as he readies for his next step—albeit in a much different role. 

When Arnold has an issue with one of his players at Warren G. Harding High School, he'll often ask Bowden to speak to the player on his behalf. Whether it's football or schoolwork, Bowden still has a tremendous influence on the school and area.

"I want to show them there's a way out for real," he says. "Just keep sticking with your dream, and everything else will come true for you."


At the age of 13, Bowden got his first tattoo. It's his initials on his back, "L" on the left and "B" on the right. Since then, Bowden estimates he has blanketed his body with at least 70 more.

Some carry significance. Life. Death. Football. Youngstown. Family. Friends. Others are there simply as art. But the tattoo Bowden says he appreciates most is one he inked this past season, a small one near his hairline that reads "Hate it or love it."

"One night I was just sitting there and decided I wanted it," he says. "It fits. You're either gonna hate me or you're gonna love me."

Over the past few months, teams have peppered Bowden with questions about the position he wants to play. About how he would fit in. About the punch he threw before his team's bowl game that nearly got him ejected—a moment that could have erased the crowning moment of his football career.

"I play with a lot of emotion," Bowden says about the punch. "And I just gave teams the truth."

Bryan Woolston/Associated Press

Very little about him or his journey is orthodox. Some will gravitate toward the idea of adding a player with such a wide-ranging skill set. Others may not recognize the same value.

Without a pro day or workout to build on, his interviews and film from these past two seasons will ultimately be the deciding factor. 

"When [NFL teams] call me, I just tell them the truth," Gran says. "His mind is incredible. He's smart. He understands the game. He's one of the toughest kids I've ever coached. And he has all the ability to make people miss. He's got great hands. All the tools. That's what I tell them. I think if they turn on the film, that's what they see."

He is not Taysom Hill. He is not Lamar Jackson. He is something different. Something the league has never seen before. As uncertain as that feels and sounds, he prefers it that way.

         

Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.

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