In 2014, when Lynn Bowden Jr. was a high school sophomore in Ohio, he scored the most preposterous touchdown I have ever seen.*
“I was scared to take a safety,” Bowden told me in 2020. “I just ran. I’m a hard guy to tackle.”
* At this time, I will not be accepting feedback about the caliber of tacklers in that video. Thank you.
This 109-yard romp turned out to be instructive about the eventual college star, not just because of his near-inexplicable way of avoiding tacklers, but because he was serving as his team’s punter.
For generations now, football’s rarely seen multi-position versatility like Bowden’s.
Until the 1940s (and for another spell until the 1960s), the best players did almost everything. The one-platoon system meant teams didn’t have separate offenses and defenses. Jim Thorpe played everywhere from halfback to defensive back to kicker. Sammy Baugh played quarterback, running back, DB, and punter.
Eventually, college football implemented a two-platoon system. That meant fewer two-way athletes. Every specialty camp for middle school quarterbacks, defensive backs, and long snappers is evidence of football’s shift toward asking players to have one great trick.
At Kentucky, Bowden played receiver, special teams, quarterback, and de facto running back. He didn’t play defense in college, but not because he couldn’t.
“We could’ve put him at DB, and he probably would’ve been a star DB,” one of his offensive coordinators, Eddie Gran, told me. At a bowl practice before his last game, Bowden played some secondary — “messing around,” Gran said — and impressed.
“He just loves the game. He didn’t care. Whatever we needed to do to win, he would play.”
What Kentucky needed was to play Bowden all over the formation.
He was All-SEC Freshman as a returner, setting Kentucky’s record for kick return yards (869). He caught 17 passes for 210 yards, impressive on a roster where the leading receiver, a senior, had 539. He threw a few passes as a wildcat-position QB: three-of-four for 92 yards. He showed glimpses that exceeded even his four-star recruit rating, like this feisty catch-and-run:
As a sophomore, he was UK’s leading receiver and retained his flare on special teams, returning a couple punts for touchdowns. His powerhouse game at Mizzou — 13 catches for 166 yards plus a 67-yard punt TD — led Kentucky to a 15-14 win and 7-1 record. One of the SEC’s historic lightweights was in the Playoff race until November, and that wouldn’t have been the case without Bowden.
“We never had to take him off the field, whether we were in 10, 11, 12 personnel,” Gran said. “That was the great thing about it, because he was so smart. We could put him inside, we could put him outside, so he played it all. Every position on the field, he played.”
In 2019, starting QB Terry Wilson got hurt in Week 2, and backup Sawyer Smith was a mix of injured and ineffective. Mark Stoops turned to Bowden, who played three years of QB in high school.
With help from Kentucky rigging up a 20th-century offense, Bowden was shockingly competent as a non-QB playing QB in the hardest conference. Switching from QB to WR is much more difficult than people make it out to be, but the reverse is even rarer.
Bowden — still officially listed as a wide receiver — reached legendary status by going 6-2 as a starting quarterback. He threw just 5.4 yards per pass, along with three TDs and three picks, but he led Kentucky’s ground game right through SEC defenses.
Despite opponents knowing Bowden’s limitations as a passer, he tore up the league with his feet.
“Even when they had eight and nine guys up in the box, he’d make a guy miss, they’d miss a fit, and we’d be able to get big plays,” Gran said.
He personally ran for 1,369 yards (most in the SEC) on 185 carries, placing him 11th on the FBS rushing list.
His eight-yard average blew away every running back who finished ahead of him in total yardage. Bowden could have become the first non-RB in the modern era to lead the country in total rushing, if he’d played QB for more than eight games. Bowden’s yards-per-game during his QB stint were 10 better than the leading FBS rusher, Chuba Hubbard, for the season.
Seven of Bowden’s eight games at QB were hundred-yard rushing games, and the other was a 99-yarder against Georgia, the nation’s #1 defense, in a downpour. Bowden ran for 5.8 per carry against a defense full of five-stars who knew exactly what was coming (and would’ve gone over 100 if not for a face-mask grab that ended his longest run of the night).
It seems certain Bowden is the only player ever to lead a major college or NFL team in QB wins (six), rushing yards (1,369), and receiving yards (348).
“I think I did a pretty good job,” he said. “Just imagine if I started Day 1.”
Watching Bowden is not only like going back in a football time machine. It’s also an exercise in muttering “holy hell” over and over.
Take this 2019 play against blood rival Louisville, when Bowden went from this ...
... to this ...
... to ... well, just watch the whole thing:
LYNN BOWDEN JR. TO THE HOUSE ‼️‼️ pic.twitter.com/HW5SuFVxyD— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 30, 2019
Explaining why a guy completing eight of 10 passes against Vanderbilt was impressive? That takes some football context.
Explaining why these moves are impressive? That takes no context at all.
“If we get beat or something, he can pop it outside real quick, and it looks designed,” his UK guard Logan Stenberg said.
By the time of that TD run, Bowden didn’t need anything more to cement himself as a first-ballot college football internet hall of famer.
But he topped his career off by getting into a fight with Virginia Tech before the Belk Bowl, then running for 233 yards and two touchdowns in a 37-30 win.
ESPN’s video of the Kentucky/Virginia Tech scuffle featuring Lynn Bowden pic.twitter.com/xgxOp8YLYo— Tyler Thompson (@MrsTylerKSR) December 31, 2019
On the final drive, Bowden carried the ball 12 times, threw a first down, and — in his final college snap — threw the bowl-winning touchdown.
“Y’all said I couldn’t throw, so over the top it goes,” he then told reporters.
Whether he’s running or throwing or fighting, Bowden is impossible to stop watching.
“I’m a ballplayer, and I like to compete,” Bowden said at the NFL Combine. “Have the biggest heart you’ll ever come across, and I don’t care who I’m playing against.”
He really is a football player, rather than a receiver or a QB or a returner, in a way almost none of his modern peers can match.
At the Combine, defenders described him as a uniquely memorable opponent.
“Just get the ball in my hands, and just watch the show,” Bowden said. “It’s really a show.”
He glided past defenders with outrageous ease. On the depth chart, he slid from position to position with the same unusual comfort.
“He kind of became that guy, the Paul Hornung, that Sammy Baugh, and those types of guys you were like, ‘Wow, this guy really could play both ways,’” Gran said.
“And you don’t run across guys like that very often, especially at our level. But it just kind of developed that way and evolved, and then he was able to be our quarterback, and the rest was history.”