ALAMEDA, Calif. — Jon Gruden likes … stuff. Playthings. Toys with which he can finagle over here, then do something entirely different over there.
So imagine the always-calculating Las Vegas Raiders coach’s mindset when he got his, ahem, hands on Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden Jr. — the reigning Paul Hornung Award winner as the nation’s most versatile player and a first-team All-American as an all-purpose player — in a combine meeting.
All Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock knew about Bowden was what they had seen on film. He had played quarterback, wildcat and slot receiver, and he had returned punts — and done it all well.
In that 15-minute skull session, Gruden dropped a “mini-install” on Bowden, complete with Raiders verbiage.
“Jon spat it out quickly and challenged him,” Mayock said. “Then we put Bowden on the board, and to our surprise, Jon drilled him, and he spat all of our information right back at us. All of our verbiage — he understood all of our concepts. He walked out of the room.”
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Mayock and Gruden stared at each other before someone uttered, “That’s a freakin’ Raider.”
“That’s what we’re looking for,” Mayock said later.
Indeed, the Raiders’ offense — thanks in equal part to Antonio Brown‘s meltdown and injury woes — was mundane and somewhat predictable in 2019 and in need of an infusion of excitement and versatility. In response, Las Vegas used a third-round pick, its third selection of last month’s draft and No. 80 overall, on the veritable Swiss Army Knife.
Bowden saw it coming after that combine meet-and-greet and a later pre-draft Zoom meeting.
“It was every coach on the staff on the Zoom call with me,” Bowden said. “I knew it was the right fit for me. Coach Gruden shot it straight with me. He liked me. That’s what it was.
“He said he wants to do a lot of things with me. [Be] ready. I’m ready to get on board.”
Bowden feels that way no matter what hat he is asked to wear for the Raiders.
Consider that his 1,468 rushing yards as a dual-threat quarterback led the SEC last fall and were 11th in FBS. His 7.9 yards per carry average led all qualified FBS rushers and shattered the previous Kentucky record of 7.1 YPC.
This despite his playing receiver for the first month of the season, when his 30 receptions tied for 21st in all of FBS.
Oh, he also went 6-2 as the Wildcats’ starting quarterback, and his 348 receiving yards at the end of the first month ended up leading Kentucky for the season.
But back to running the ball. Bowden rushed for at least 100 yards in seven of eight games at quarterback and ran for 99 in the other. In those eight games, he averaged 171.1 rushing yards per game (he rushed for 284 yards against rival Louisville). The SEC record for rushing yards per game in a season belongs to Herschel Walker, who averaged 171.9 yards per game in 1981.
Bowden was also MVP of Kentucky’s 37-30 Belk Bowl win over Virginia Tech after rushing for 233 yards — an NCAA bowl record for a quarterback — and two TDs and throwing the game-winning 13-yard touchdown pass with 15 seconds to play.
An infusion of electricity? Yeah, Bowden brings that to the Raiders.
“Oh, man, he’s a guy that kind of stands out,” said fellow draft pick Bryan Edwards, a receiver from South Carolina who not only played against Bowden but also was taken one pick after him.
“Runs the ball extremely hard. He plays with a lot of passion. You can tell he’s committed to the game. I love the way he plays the game.”
As the Raiders play the ultimate game of hurry-up-and-wait, with the NFL allowing facilities to reopen this week so long as local rules allow it (the Raiders’ Henderson, Nevada, complex is under construction, and the team’s Alameda, California, facility, which still houses all of the team’s equipment, remains locked up), Bowden remains focused on Zoom meetings with his fellow rookies, veteran teammates and coaches.
Bowden has seemingly emerged from the cloud of character concerns that enveloped him early at Kentucky, due to academic issues, fights and Twitter rants, as a more mature player and father.
“I’m lost for words right now,” Bowden said the night of the draft. “I’ve been through so much, so many ups and downs. I always got this chip on my shoulder, and I’m still going to have it. Being drafted here just motivated me more and more. Looking in my son’s eyes and seeing how happy he was for me, I know I have to go hard.”
The Raiders see the 6-foot-1, 206-pound Bowden not so much as a Taysom Hill clone but more as a (wait for it) running back and punt returner.
“Ultimately, he’ll probably be what we call a ‘joker,’ which is what I love in Jon’s offense,” Mayock said. “It’s somebody who can do multiple jobs. But day one, he’s going to come in and be a running back.
“In the SEC two years ago, he caught 60-70 passes as a slot [receiver]. Last year, as you guys know, he was quarterback/wildcat … we think he’s one of the most athletic, tougher guys in this year’s draft. We’re going to train him to be running back. If he’s able to do that job, we’ll be able [to] do some other things with him — move him around, let him catch the football.”
Bowden is like a shiny new toy for Gruden, only more versatile.
“I feel like I’m going to wake the world up,” Bowden said. “It’s only a matter of time.”