By now he's seen it all, but there's no way Terry Wilson (or anyone) could have predicted his college career playing out like it has
On a Friday afternoon in late May, Terry Wilson is in between a couple of things that have become part of his daily routine in Lexington.
In the morning, it’s rehab. Getting his knee back to 100% following last year’s season-ending torn patellar injury is priority No. 1 as the Kentucky quarterback enters Year 5. He has never dealt with an injury of this magnitude, though he did break his collarbone on 2 separate occasions as a sophomore in at Del City High School (Okla.). Both instances played out somewhat similarly to his Kentucky injury — a scramble that ended with an awkward landing at the hands of defenders who were a few weight classes above him.
Priority No. 2 will be addressed after Wilson hops off a half-hour phone conversation with an out-of-town media member. At 3 p.m., he’ll get throws in with the Kentucky receivers. Wilson is working to get back on the same page with the Wildcat wideouts after missing all but 7 quarters of the 2019 season. When he travels to Florida in Week 2, it’ll be his first SEC game in 22 months.
But in the grand scheme of things, those 22 months are just a small chunk of what has been an unpredictable 5-year career. If “Terry Touchdown” is his nickname, Wilson’s page-turning autobiography would be titled “The Tales of Terry Touchdown.” At this point, there’s not much that Wilson hasn’t seen.
By the time Wilson closes the book on his college career in 2020, his numbers will be … let’s call them “extensive.” Three schools in 3 different time zones, 1.5 serious knee injuries (more on the 0.5 later), 1 surprising Netflix show appearance, at least 1 historic season and plenty more twists and turns along the way.
No 2 years of college have been the same. Check that. None of them have been anywhere close to one another. Perhaps it’s only fitting that Wilson’s new normal entering his last college season involves things like a global pandemic and his first major knee rehab.
Five years? Is he sure he hasn’t been in school for the past decade?
“Yeah, no lie. It definitely feels like that,” Wilson tells SDS. “It’s crazy, man. I never thought I’d be in college 5 years. But hey, I’m here.”
Jeff Sims is familiar with the question — how would you describe Garden City, Kansas?
“Listen, bro,” Sims told SDS, “go to nowhere and drive 3 more hours.”
If one does that, they’ll find Garden City Community College. Located in southwest Kansas off US-400, it’s 3.5 hours from Wichita, which is the closest well-known U.S. city. Garden City is home to Lee Richardson Zoo, a Walmart Supercenter and a town of roughly 26,000 people. It’s also home to a football program that won the 2016 Junior College National Championship.
Players walk a quarter mile to get to practice. Sims, who was Garden City’s head coach from 2015-18, described the program’s locker rooms as “middle school at best.” National champions or not, it’s still JUCO. Nobody will confuse Garden City for Oregon. That’s where Wilson came from before he arrived at Garden City in 2017, though he didn’t exactly advertise that.
During his time in the JUCO ranks, Sims had over 200 players come from Division I programs. All of them wore the gear that they had at their previous D1 university. Well, with the exception of 2 guys. One was former Boston College quarterback Dominique Davis, whom Sims coached at Fort Scott Community College before he set the passing touchdowns record at East Carolina and spent 3 years with the Atlanta Falcons.
The other guy was Wilson. He wasn’t lacking it coming from Nike powerhouse Oregon. The only Oregon gear that Wilson wore once he got to Garden City were his Nike cleats, but that was because they asked players to provide their own.
That showed Sims how much Wilson bought into the idea of playing at Garden City.
“Reality is a lot of guys that you get at Garden City have something that they have to fix in their life to get to a Division I program,” Sims said. “Terry didn’t have anything to fix. He was using the system to his advantage.”
Garden City gave Wilson a chance to play, which he didn’t get in his 1 and only season at Oregon in 2016.
Former Ducks offensive coordinator Scott Frost recruited Wilson to go to Eugene. Before the start of Wilson’s senior year of high school in 2015, Frost surprised him by coming down to practice. Wilson was a bit starstruck. Oregon was months removed from a national runner-up season in which Marcus Mariota won the Heisman Trophy. Following that visit and conversation with Frost, Wilson committed to the Ducks.
A month later, so did another class of 2016 quarterback. He was a fellow 3-star quarterback, though Wilson was rated higher and he was a more natural fit in Frost’s offense. Wilson didn’t waver on his commitment when Frost left for UCF, and he enrolled that March. Oregon’s other 2016 signal-caller kept his commitment, too, but Wilson had a few months on him.
Upon his arrival, however, Wilson realized during 7-on-7s that the new guy named “Justin Herbert” might not have been properly rated by the recruiting services.
“Everybody’s like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ Even I’m amazed. I’m like, ‘OK, you’ve got an arm,’” Wilson said. “You see (Herbert) and you’re like, ‘OK, you’re an NFL quarterback.’”
Oregon saw it that way, too. Herbert not only moved ahead of Wilson on the depth chart, but the true freshman put himself in position to upstage the veteran. At 6-5, Herbert already had the size and the arm to play at the Power 5 level. In early October, he replaced starter Dakota Prukop and never looked back.
— GoDucks (@GoDucks) October 28, 2016
Wilson saw the writing on the wall at the end of his true freshman season. His path to playing time was blocked by his emerging classmate, and as long as he stayed at Oregon, an injury to Herbert was probably the only way he’d see the field. Despite some pressing from the defensive coaches to switch to safety, Wilson wanted to stay at quarterback. But in order to do that, he had to find another home.
“I had to get over it,” Wilson said. “I just wanted to play some ball.”
Wilson did just that. Instead of transferring to another Power 5 program and sitting a year because of NCAA rules, he elected for the JUCO route.
In stepped Steve Shimko, who was Garden City’s offensive coordinator in 2017 (he’s now the tight ends coach at Boston College). He sold Wilson on playing for the defending JUCO national champs, and doing so for a school that was 5 hours from home in Oklahoma City. In May of 2017, Wilson announced that he was heading to Garden City.
After enrolling that summer, Wilson was about as football-focused as one could be. Neither he nor his roommate brought a gaming system or even a TV to pass the time. All Wilson had was a laptop. What did he do when he had a Friday night free in Garden City, you ask?
“Literally, I don’t know. Nothing. At all,” Wilson said. “Just sit in your dorm and watch Netflix, I guess.”
It’s not every day that you get off the bus and realize that you’re the villain in a TV show, especially not at the JUCO level.
That was the last thing on the mind of Garden City, who arrived at Independence Community College for an early-September game as the defending national champions having won 13 games in a row dating to 2016.
“We literally pulled up and there’s cameras everywhere,” Sims said. “We didn’t know that was happening.”
By “that,” Sims meant filming of the popular Netflix show “Last Chance U,” which was in the midst of its first season filming at Independence after 2 years at East Mississippi Community College. Garden City prepared as if it were just another game, but for Independence, it was their Super Bowl. It was, as Sims called it, a manufactured rivalry. Little did his team know the bizarre situation they entered as soon as they stepped off the bus.
“It was wild, man. It wasn’t Oklahoma, but we’re in the middle of nowhere with all these cameras,” Wilson said. “Let’s go play some ball.”
Unfortunately for Wilson and Garden City, the “villain” didn’t get the last laugh (Sims has some thoughts about how his program was portrayed in the show). Wilson completed 13-of-24 passes for 194 yards and a score, and he added 37 rushing yards and a touchdown run, but it wasn’t enough to get past Independence.
Sims felt guilty about not preparing his team for the situation they entered. He insisted that he, not Wilson, was to blame for Garden City’s win streak ending. Wilson didn’t lead Garden City to another national title, but he did finish the 2017 season with Jayhawk Conference Offensive Player of the Year honors.
(After “Last Chance U” aired the following summer, Wilson watched it immediately even though he lived the disappointing ending. To this day, he still gets asked by people if he’s the same Terry Wilson from the Garden City game.)
More important, he reminded Power 5 coaches why he was one of the top dual-threat quarterback recruits in the country. Florida, Kentucky and Nebraska all wanted Wilson, who was rated the No. 2 dual-threat quarterback from the JUCO level.
He earned another chance to play in front of the bright lights. Unlike his experience at Independence, he saw the bright lights coming.
Kentucky linebacker Kash Daniel sat down with Mark Stoops and watched film of a JUCO quarterback they were recruiting out of Garden City. It reminded Daniel of the famous Boobie Miles scene from the movie “Friday Night Lights.”
“He breaks a couple runs and you’re like, ‘Damn. That boy right there can run,’” Daniel told SDS. “And a couple clips later, you’re like, ‘And he can pass!’”
Stoops was plenty familiar with recruiting JUCO quarterback transfers. He had success doing so with Stephen Johnson, who was Kentucky’s starter in 2016 and 2017. Among the candidates to replace him, Stoops brought in Wilson.
When Wilson committed to Kentucky in December 2017, it was a major victory for Stoops. Nebraska was his biggest competition. Specifically, Frost. When Frost was in the process of leaving UCF for Nebraska, he reached out to Wilson to see if he’d want to become his starter in Lincoln. It was an intriguing possibility considering their relationship from his Oregon recruitment. But ultimately, Wilson decided to follow a new path with the coaching staff at Kentucky (it probably didn’t hurt that his tour guide on his official visit was Benny Snell).
It didn’t take long to establish himself as the clear favorite to replace Johnson. Cliché or not, Daniel and others saw how quickly Wilson won over the locker room. That ability that Daniel and Stoops watched on tape was evident from the jump. Leading a Kentucky team that was loaded with veterans, Wilson won the starting job out of camp. But in an offseason that featured SEC quarterback battles at places like Alabama, Florida and Georgia, Wilson wasn’t exactly on the national radar.
It took 3 weeks for that to change.
Almost a year to the day that Wilson faced Independence, he led 2-0 Kentucky into a raucous atmosphere at Florida, where the Wildcats were winless dating to 1979. That is, until Terry Touchdown showed up.
Wilson helped Kentucky to a stunning 27-16 win and ended the nation’s longest active losing streak at 31. Josh Allen and Snell dominated the headlines for their All-American performances that night, but Wilson was plenty impressive himself. He had a combined 256 yards from scrimmage with 3 touchdowns (2 passing, 1 rushing), including a 54-yard dart to Lynn Bowden for what proved to be the back-breaking score.
Terry Wilson Throws a 54 Yard Bomb to Lynn Bowden Jr. for a Kentucky Touchdown that Silences the Swamp!! #UKvsUF #UKvsFLA #Wildcats #BBN #SEC #KentuckyFootball #GoBigBlue 😺 🔵⚪️ pic.twitter.com/t2kUuPHSXK
— Wildcat Touchdowns (@WildcatTDs) September 9, 2018
“Without that run (at Florida) and without some of the decisions that Terry made that game, this is Year 33 without beating Florida,” Daniel said. “That was his coming-out party.”
And on a weekly basis, Wilson showed he was the right man to steer Kentucky’s historical season. Even though the combination of Snell and Allen became the popular storyline in Lexington in 2018, and understandably so, Wilson’s resiliency won Kentucky fans over.
With Kentucky trying to keep its SEC East hopes alive at Mizzou, Kentucky found itself trailing 14-9 with 81 yards to drive in 84 seconds. Well, it turned into 88 yards in just over a minute after Wilson was sacked on the first play of the final drive. But somehow, someway, Wilson got it done. He completed all 6 of his pass attempts, including a 2-yard, walk-off touchdown pass to C.J. Conrad on an all-or-nothing untimed down.
Terry Wilson ➡️ CJ Conrad FOR THE WIN! pic.twitter.com/hyJZ2TtFow
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) October 27, 2018
If the Florida win was top moment No. 1 for Wilson, the walk-off winner at Mizzou was top moment 1A.
“That last drive … it was ridiculous,” Wilson said.
What people outside the Kentucky locker room didn’t know until after the season was that comeback was in the midst of a stretch when Wilson played through a significant knee injury. It happened in the 4th game of the year against Mississippi State. Lost in the hoopla of the Wildcats’ 21-point victory against No. 14 MSU was what happened in the 4th quarter. What looked like a routine sack was actually much more. As Wilson went down, Kentucky offensive lineman Bunchy Stallings fell on his right leg.
At the time, Wilson didn’t think anything of it. And even when he woke up the next day to a swelled knee that he couldn’t put pressure on, Wilson fought through it. “I was like, ‘OK, this is SEC football. I gotta get used to it,’” Wilson said. Trainers would tape his knee regularly, and each Saturday that he took the field for the following 2 months — while never missing a start — he knew that he didn’t have his full arsenal at less than 100%. He couldn’t cut as well and the straightaway speed wasn’t there. Mentally, it got to him.
It wasn’t until the Middle Tennessee game on Nov. 17 that Wilson felt like himself again. The numbers, especially in the rushing department, show a clear difference.
So why did Wilson play through that? Was he worried about losing his starting job? Did he have flashbacks to what he went through with Herbert and with a deeper understanding of what it meant to be a Power 5 starter?
Wilson didn’t look at it like that. He looked at it through the eyes of someone who experienced Garden City.
Besides not having the amenities of a Division I program, Sims ran his practices a little bit differently than what we’ve come to expect in today’s world of college football. Quarterbacks? They’re football players, too. They were live during 7-on-7s. They wouldn’t necessarily get taken to the ground, but Sims felt that he needed to see how his quarterbacks handled real contact.
That’s where Wilson learned how to play through pain. Just in case he didn’t have enough support in the Kentucky locker room, that toughness won him even more points with his teammates.
“There are some guys where if you can walk, you can play. That’s how tough Terry is,” Daniel said.
Wilson had every intention of taking the next step in 2019. While preseason publications questioned whether the Wildcats would surpass 6 wins after their historic 2018 season, Wilson was set to become a bigger focal point of the offense following the NFL departure of Snell.
It took 2 weeks for that to change.
No amount of Garden City toughness was enough to get through the way he went down on a scramble against Eastern Michigan. A horse-collar tackle resulted in Wilson’s patellar tear and a swift end to his 2019 season. Almost exactly a year after he led Kentucky’s upset win in The Swamp, Wilson’s injury was met with a deflating reaction.
“Everybody’s just like, ‘Ah, s— . Ah, s— ,’” Daniel said. “At the time, that was really all you could think.”
Little did Kentucky players know that Bowden would shift from receiver to quarterback, develop into the SEC’s best rusher, win the Paul Hornung Award as the most versatile player in college football and lead the Cats to an improbable 8-win season. As Daniel said, at the time, it was a devastating blow to lose someone like Wilson who was 12-3 as a starter.
Kentucky found a way to make it work without Wilson, but it would prefer to avoid that in 2020. He’s expected to be at full go by the start of fall camp. Given the uncertainty surrounding the eligibility of Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood, Wilson’s health is all the more important to a program that’s still on a mission to prove it’s far removed from being the butt of the joke.
Wilson dealt with a strange experience in that department earlier this offseason.
The SEC Network’s official Twitter account tweeted a video of Wilson getting sacked on multiple occasions with audio from a popular YouTube video, “What are you doing, Terry?” Needless to say, the out-of-character tweet was met with some strong reactions from the Bluegrass State. Stoops clapped back at SEC Network for posting the video, which was quickly removed.
— Mark Stoops (@UKCoachStoops) April 30, 2020
After seeing the video, Daniel sent a text to the veteran quarterback.
“I told him, ‘Hey man, don’t worry about this s—,’” Daniel said.
Yeah, he’s not worried.
“I thought it was funny,” Wilson said. “I’ll just make sure I take care of my part when the season comes.”
That’s been a long time coming for Wilson, who graduated in May with a degree in communication. He won’t petition the NCAA for a medical redshirt, either. This will be his 5th and final year of college. “Five years is enough,” Wilson said. If he doesn’t have any post-college opportunities as a player, he wants to get into fashion or coaching. If he chooses the latter, he’s certainly not lacking experiences to draw on.
But in the meantime, he’s focused on 2020. Watching film of his first year at Kentucky — another part of his offseason routine — has been revealing.
“Sometimes it’s hard to watch,” Wilson said, “because it’s like, ‘Come on, dude. It’s 3rd-and-5. All I gotta do is go to this side and it’s wide open.’”
The goal is to get back to the level he felt he was at in his shortened 2019 season. Wilson is trying to become the first Kentucky quarterback to ever register multiple seasons of double-digit wins. For a program that has never had multiple 10-win seasons in the same 25-year stretch, that would leave quite the mark.
Whether he reaches new heights this year or not, he made at least one of his former coaches proud. Sims, who is now the head coach at Division II Missouri Southern State University, takes pride in watching Wilson knowing what he went through to become a multi-year starting quarterback in the SEC.
“To end the story correctly, he’s gotta take all the life lessons he’s learned to this season and make this season special for him,” Sims said. “To me, that makes it all worthwhile.”
On a Saturday afternoon in late May, Sims has a lot on his plate. He’s in the midst of his first full offseason at MSSU, and with all the COVID-19 restrictions, he’s juggling a variety of different tasks before welcoming players back to campus. But when it comes to Wilson, he has no problem spending a half-hour on the phone talking about the impression he left in 1 year at Garden City. Before Sims gets back to his MSSU-related activities, he answers 1 final question about his former quarterback.
Is there anything else that people need to know about Terry Wilson?
“Terry’s a different breed. I cannot emphasize that enough,” Sims said. “Going from the Taj Mahal of Oregon to the ground level, no pomp, no circumstance, just basic level of football at Garden City to go to Kentucky … it’s Ruth’s Chris to Waffle House to Ruth’s Chris.
“And by the way, he enjoyed every meal.”