Former Iowa basketball player Ahmad Wagner is excited to be playing football again at Kentucky. Jon Hale, Louisville Courier Journal
LEXINGTON, Ky. – By the time Reid Travis makes his official Kentucky basketball debut in November, another Power 5 conference basketball transfer could be turning heads in blue and white.
But unlike Travis, former Iowa basketball player Ahmad Wagner’s hooping days are behind him. Instead he will lineup on the gridiron for Mark Stoops’ football program.
“I just didn’t want to live with any regret,” Wagner said. “It’s something that had been on my mind for a while. I do love basketball, but I also have a love for football and it’s something I wanted to pursue.”
Like Travis, Wagner is immediately eligible to play for Kentucky this season after three years of basketball at Iowa.
Travis’ immediate eligibility comes through the oft-used graduate transfer waiver in NCAA transfer rules, allowing him to play right away instead of sitting out a year because he graduated from Stanford. The rule allowing Wager to play is far less common.
So much so that even Wagner initially expected he was going to have to sit out a year when he decided to give up basketball and leave Iowa.
“Knocked me off my feet when I heard (he could play),” said Jay Minton, Wagner’s former football coach at Wayne High School.
Wagner played just one year of high school football, catching 58 passes for 1,028 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior. By the time he returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown in the Ohio Division I state championship game, Wagner had already signed with Iowa to play basketball.
“I think he was the best high school football player in Ohio, in (the class of ) 2015,” said UK recruiting coordinator Vince Marrow, who recruited Wagner both in high school and after he decided to transfer from Iowa. “If he would have made the decision to play, he would have went to either Ohio State or Alabama.
“…It was kind of like a sad thing when he didn’t decide to play (football). I think every college coach that was in there recruiting him was hoping he would come play one day. I tried to convince him, but his heart was stuck in basketball. I just kind of knew back then that he would probably still want to play football down the line.”
NCAA rules prohibited Marrow from contacting Wagner directly while at Iowa, but he continued to recruit Wayne High School and occasionally checked in with Minton about Wagner’s continued interest in football.
As a freshman, Wagner averaged 10.1 minutes per game for Iowa then worked his way into a part-time starting role as a sophomore, averaging 16 minutes per game.
That upward trajectory halted during his junior year though, as he was relegated to the bench, averaging 1.7 points and 1.7 rebounds in 9.1 minutes per game.
“It seemed like from here outside looking in that’s when he started to say, ‘Hmmm, maybe I do need to look at football here,’” Minton said.
NCAA rules allow an athletes to compete a fifth year in a second sport, but initial reports suggested if Wagner wanted to play both of his remaining years in his five-year window he would need to stay at Iowa and play football there.
The compliance department at Akron, one of the other schools recruiting Wagner, discovered he could play right away at another program too.
“I was like man this is going to be a bonus,” Marrow said. “We thought he had to come in, sit out, get ready. You guys probably saying, ‘Why isn’t he in the two-deep (depth chart)?’ His situation is a little different. … You see glimpses of it right now. He had a hamstring thing, and I think his body had to get used to being in football. Dude, some of the stuff you’ve see already from him, write this down: He will help us sometime this year.”
Asked for clarification about Wagner’s immediate eligibility, an NCAA spokesman pointed to rule 126.96.36.199.7, 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.
For Wagner and Kentucky that means the addition of a 6-foot-5, 238-pound physical specimen to the receiving corp a year earlier than initially expected.
“He’s got the talent and the ability and everything that you need to have,” Minton said. “He could have a shot at the next level. You hate to say that about a kid, to put him in there prematurely or anything, put that pressure on him, but I’m telling you what, he’s got that kind of athleticism and that kind of ability.”
Three years away from football means there has been a steep learning curve for Wagner though.
During the first week of preseason practices, he caught the eye with a couple of contested catches through tight coverage, but the different physical demands required of football versus basketball have slowed his progression.
“You knew this was going to be a developmental year,” UK coach Mark Stoops said. “…He’s been away from the game, so learning everything and putting it all together he’s a touch behind. But I am excited about him.”
Even if the rule allowing him to play immediately had not been discovered, Wagner said he would have likely ended up at Kentucky thanks to the relationship he developed with Marrow in high school. Akron and Cincinnati were among his other most ardent suitors after he decided to play football again.
Now the “bonus year” has presented its own challenges with the accelerated timeline to contribute.
“I think it’s a lot easier to know that you can’t play than to know you can play but maybe you’re not quite ready to play yet,” Minton said. “But I don’t think it will take that kid that long to do that.”
Wagner did not play in Kentucky’s season-opening win over Central Michigan. His best chance for early snaps might come in the week-three matchup with FCS-opponent Murray State.
But by the time his former sport’s season starts in a couple months, don’t be surprised if Wagner is a regular contributor.
“I’m anxious to see what he looks like in about six weeks,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said. “…The guy hasn’t played football in a long time, but boy you can see it. This is all extra for us. We were very fortunate that we got this extra year. This is bonus for us, for him.”