Former Iowa basketball player Ahmad Wagner now emerging as a receiver for Kentucky

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Ahmad Wagner breaks loose from a defender in last Saturday's victory over Toledo. Photo courtesy of University of Kentucky Athletics

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa - The way Ahmad Wagner sees it, he has the best of both worlds.

He has friends and teammates for life from two teams that will always mean a great deal to him.

Wagner has memories that he will cherish forever from his three seasons as a member of the Iowa basketball team, and he is now creating new memories that he will cherish forever as a football player for the University of Kentucky.

The former combo forward at Iowa is now an emerging force at receiver for the surging Wildcats, who are coached by former Iowa defensive back Mark Stoops.

Wagner had three catches for 57 yards in Kentucky’s 38-24 victory over Toledo in the season opener this past Saturday. It was Wagner’s first extensive playing time for the Wildcats.

“It’s a special experience, a unique one,” Wagner said in a phone interview late Wednesday afternoon. “I’ve built brotherhoods and special relationships with so many different people during my time in collegiate sports. So that’s just a blessing to have that relationship with so many different guys that I’m going to have for the rest of my life.”

His first love

Wagner played in 96 games during his three seasons under Fran McCaffery at Iowa, with 25 starts.

He scored double figures in six games and led the team in steals eight times and blocked shots six times in three years.

He also earned the team’s Most Improved Player Award and the inaugural Kenny Arnold Hawkeye Spirit Award as a sophomore 

Basketball has always been Wagner’s first love, and he said Wednesday that it still is his favorite sport.

But his upside is higher in football, and Wagner finally became convinced of that after having played basketball for three seasons at Iowa.

As a freshman, Wagner averaged 10.1 minutes per game for Iowa and then was a part-time starter as a sophomore, averaging 16 minutes per game.

But then he struggled as a junior, averaging 1.7 points and 1.7 rebounds in 9.1 minutes per game while coming off the bench.

“It was definitely tough, picking a school, I picked it for a reason because I felt at home there, and the relationships that I built with some of the guys on the team and my coaching staff and just the fans up there, it was definitely a tough decision,” Wagner said of leaving Iowa. “But I gave everything that I had while I was there and I feel like my teammates and my fans respected me while I was there, and I respected them as well.

“So leaving there was hard, but I feel like I made a great decision to come to Kentucky as well.”

A season to remember in football

Wagner only played one season of high school football, but the Huber Heights, Ohio native showed enough during that one season as a senior to earn a scholarship offer from several schools, including Kentucky.

He made first-team all-state and finished with 58 receptions for 1,028 yards and 15 touchdowns.

But he already had signed a letter of intent to play basketball for Iowa, and Wagner chose to honor that commitment despite his growing reputation in football.

Wagner’s combination of size, speed and athleticism made him almost impossible to guard in high school as a receiver, and he’s now using those same strengths to play receiver in the mighty Southeastern Conference, which is widely regarded as the best conference in the nation for football.

He spent last season making the transition to football and didn’t figure prominently in Kentucky’s passing game.

But if Kentucky’s victory over Toledo in the season opener is any indication, Wagner’s role is about to change significantly.

Wagner had one catch against Toledo that covered 40 yards in which he used his 6-foot-5, 234-pound body to break free from multiple defenders.

“It’s going great. I’m real excited,” Wagner said. “Getting adjusted to football last year gave me a chance to get everything down with the playbook and being with my teammates and coaches and everything.

“So coming out this year I was really prepared and excited to reap the benefits on the field.”

Loyal Hawkeye

Wagner stayed committed to Iowa for three years and he always played with high energy and with passion. He thrilled the fans with his dunks, his athleticism and his exuberance, and he was also very popular with his teammates, coaches and the media.

“Ahmad has been a tremendous teammate and an absolute joy to coach the past three seasons,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said in a release to announce that Wagner was leaving Iowa. “Ahmad has a unique blend of athleticism and strength to go along with a tremendous work ethic.

“I have no doubt that he will be successful in his pursuit of playing football. I am excited for his future and wish him nothing but the best. We will work with Ahmad any way we can to assist him during this transition.”

It was initially thought that if Wagner wanted to play football in both of his remaining years in his five-year window of eligibility he would have to stay at Iowa and play football there.

But then the compliance department at Akron, which was one of the other schools recruiting Wagner for football, discovered that he could play right away at another program.

An NCAA spokesman, in an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal, pointed to rule 14.5.5.2.7, which allows transfers who have not competed in the new sport for a consecutive two-year period prior to the start date at the new school an exemption to the normal requirement of a year in residence at a new school before playing.

“This four-year transfer exception is sport-specific and therefore is available to student athletes who change sports following transfer and have never or minimally participate in the sport in which they now seek to participate,” the spokesman said to the Courier-Journal in an article that was published on Sept. 6, 2018.

Competing in the mighty SEC

Wagner saw action in 11 games last season, but had no catches. But he was targeted four times and drew three pass interference penalties as defensive backs struggled with his size and strength.

He also learned the playbook and adjusted to life at a new school while playing a new sport.

“I think I’m very ready just because last year I pretty much had like a three-month period from basketball to jump right into fall camp for football,” Wagner said. “So it was a quick transition. And this year I’ve gotten a chance to really lock in on the playbook and really work on things that I wasn’t so good at last year, and just commit my time in the offseason to getting better.”

Wagner learned from being eligible last season what it takes to compete in the SEC where there is an abundance of talent and elite programs.

“You never know until you play, but this is one of the best conferences in the country for football, and you never know what you’re getting into until you’re actually playing in it,” Wagner said. “So preparing for this last year I think really got me ready for this year to really take a big step and help my team the best I possibly can.”

The Iowa media sometimes would ask Wagner about his feelings towards football while he played for the Hawkeyes, and even more so after his role had been diminished.

He always said that he was focused solely on basketball and he never wavered on his commitment to the Iowa basketball program.

“I was one-hundred percent locked in with the basketball team when I was there,” Wagner said.

That didn’t change until Wagner had finished playing his third season of basketball at Iowa. His career in basketball was sort of sputtering and he didn’t want to have any regrets about football.

“Definitely, coming out of high school and receiving the attention that I did in football, it lingered in the back of my mind, could I have played, could I have played?” Wagner said. “So after I made the decision to leave, and finally seizing an opportunity was pretty awesome and a special opportunity.”

Another Hawkeye connection

Kentucky immediately became a contender for Wagner because of the relationships that he had built with Stoops and with his coaching staff during the recruiting process in high school. Kentucky had offered Wagner a scholarship for football while he was in high school, and then offered him again after he announced that he was leaving Iowa.

“I felt comfortable with the coaching staff just because they were one of the schools that recruited me when I was in high school,” Wagner said. “So when I made the decision to leave, they were the first school to reach out to me and offer me again. And I had a relationship with that coaching staff already, so it seemed like a pretty good decision to come here.”

Wagner didn’t know that Stoops had played football at Iowa until he took his official visit to Kentucky.

“When I first came here on my official visit I didn’t know that until I came on my official visit here after I decided to leave (Iowa),” Wagner said. “And then I got told that and it was just like crazy and a small world that we both happened to go there.”

Kentucky had its best season in over 40 years last fall, finishing 10-3 overall at a school that is widely regarded as one of the top two of three schools in the country for men’s basketball.

Stoops is in his seventh season as head coach and has a 37-39 overall record,

“Coach Stoops is an amazing coach and it’s amazing program, and we just want to keep that going and continue to improve each and every year and to build on top of what he’s done,” Wagner said.

Wagner said the transition from playing basketball to football at the highest level in college has been difficult at times, from the training to just learning an entirely different role in a different sport.

“It was a difficult transition I won’t lie just because you have to prepare differently,” Wagner said. “The conditioning, the weight lifting, everything is completely different in how you use your muscles and how you do everything on the field versus the court is different. But there are certain parts of the game that translate, so I wanted to use that until I got caught up with everything else.”

Wagner said his size can be an advantage and a disadvantage at receiver.

“It’s definitely a transition,” Wagner said. “At Iowa, I was at the small forward and power forward positions, and sometimes, I was big at times and sometimes I was the right size. But here at receiver I’m always a big receiver, so it definitely helps on the field when you’re going against defenders that are smaller than you.

“But there is also difficulties in being a tall guy at receiver, so that’s what I really worked on in the offseason is trying to limit my problems that I had with being a tall receiver.”

Wagner still keeps in touch with his former Iowa teammates and coaches. He still has a close bond with many of them and he always will because they spent three years together.

“I talk to the coaches whenever I get a chance,” Wagner said. “The players that are there, and the players that left, we’re all really close and talk frequently. I’m always supporting those guys and they know they’ve got my support always.

“Basketball is my first love, and I’ve never not loved basketball. So I’m always following the guys and following the team and watching basketball frequently. It’s still a love of mind, so I’m always going to have that love for the game.”

Wagner also has friends on the Iowa football team and still keeps track of what they’re doing.

“I have friends on the football team as well,” he said. “So I went to games whenever we had time. I have relationships with those guys as well and watched their first game this season.”

As for how Iowa City compares to living in Lexington, Ky., Wagner said both towns have one thing in common.

“It feels like it’s a bigger city down here,” Wagner said. “I feel like in Iowa City it was smaller and everything was closer together. But at both places the fans are just amazing and I’m just blessed to go to a place where both fans bases are truly unbelievable.”