In his 8th season in Lexington, it’s inarguable that Mark Stoops has accomplished many things. He inherited a 2-10 team with FCS-level talent and built it into a squad with 4 consecutive bowl appearances. He’s produced a 10-win season, wins over Florida and Tennessee, bowl victories over Penn State and Virginia Tech, and a general elevation of the entire Kentucky program.

He just hasn’t produced a successful, traditional quarterback.

With UK starter Terry Wilson missing practice this week due to an injury (and with persistent rumors that Wilson may choose to opt out for the remainder of the 2020 season), it looks increasingly likely that Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood will get the call Saturday against Georgia. Kentucky is last in the SEC in passing in 2020, after finishing last in 2019. Despite all the victories for Stoops, Kentucky’s QB situation has been scattered basically for his entire time in Lexington.

Stoops has produced 1 2,500 yard passer in 8 seasons. That was Patrick Towles, a Joker Phillips recruit, who passed for 2,718 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2014. Both figures are the highest passing totals of Stoops’ UK career. Towles lost his starting job late in his junior season (2015), and then transferred to Boston College, where he finished his career.

Statistics aside, Stoops’ top quarterbacks are probably JUCO transfer Stephen Johnson, Wilson, and wide receiver Lynn Bowden. Johnson did pass for over 2,000 yards in each of his 2 seasons, and had perhaps the most high-profile passing day for a Stoops QB, when he threw for 338 yards and 3 touchdowns in a 2016 upset of Louisville. That’s 1 of only 9 300-yard passing games by Stoops’ UK quarterbacks.

Wilson has a 14-6 record as a starter at UK and has produced his share of memorable moments, like the 2018 drive to beat Missouri, and a solid all-around effort at Florida to key Kentucky’s upset in the same season. But like Johnson, Wilson has had his share of games when even simple passes looked awkward, if not impossible.

Bowden, of course, wasn’t a quarterback at all. He was a wide receiver who switched to quarterback out of desperation after Kentucky’s 3 top QBs were injured. And despite the lack of a meaningful passing game, he still ran roughshod over opposing defenses for most of his snaps.

From 2015-present, Kentucky has had 33 games in which it failed to throw for 150 yards. It has won 19 of those games.

Kentucky has had to win games with starting QB production like this:

  • 10-for-24 for 49 yards and 1 INT (Johnson, 2016 vs. Vandy)
  • 6-for-15 for 46 yards (Johnson, 2017 vs. Tennessee, although he did rush for 84 yards)
  • 3-for-9 for 18 yards, 1 TD (Wilson, 2018 vs. Vandy, although he did rush for 91 yards)
  • 1-for-2 for 4 yards (Bowden, 2019 vs. Louisville, although he did rush for 284 (!?!) yards)
  • 8-for-20 for 73 yards, 1 TD (Wilson, 2020 vs. Mississippi State)

There are a few things that should be pointed out. For one thing, ugly passing days aren’t the death of Kentucky football. All 5 of those games above were victories, and all 5 had significant QB rushing moments (especially Bowden’s game, which was basically throwback single-wing football). For that matter, it’s equally worth noting that in UK football’s all-time 400 yard passing games, all of which were pre-Stoops, the Wildcats posted a 5-10 record. Clearly, there is more to winning than throwing the football.

Another thing that should be pointed out is this — Kentucky has had a tremendous amount of bad luck at the QB position. During Stoops’ tenure, some of the unlucky situations have been:

  • Towles deciding to transfer after 2015
  • Drew Barker’s season-ending injury to Drew Barker in 2016 and not rehabbing near full strength in 2017
  • Wilson’s season-ending injury in 2019
  • Significant injury to Sawyer Smith in 2019
  • Decommitment of former Miami QB Jarren Williams
  • Decommitment of Alabama QB Mac Jones
  • Transfers of Gunnar Hoak and Danny Clark after 2018
  • Delayed eligibility for Joey Gatewood in 2020.

Now, some of that is just college football. Guys decommit, guys transfer, guys get hurt. But Kentucky has consistently had to reconfigure and rebuild. Some of the pain has been self-inflicted, too, such as not recruiting overlooked in-state standout Tanner Morgan, who has become a star at Minnesota.

The other factor is that Kentucky’s wide receiver play hasn’t been outstanding, either. Senior Josh Ali is UK’s top receiver, but even Ali has struggled with drops, fumbles and general mistakes. After Ali’s 25 catches, no other Wildcat has more than 7, and UK has significantly struggled to get players open for anybody to throw them the football.

Meanwhile, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran has been something of a lightning rod during Wilson’s 2020 struggles.

But stuck between a defensive-minded head coach and a rotating door of quarterbacks, Gran’s offense has been pragmatic, largely ignoring glamor in favor of an offense that doesn’t give the ball away and lets a tough-minded offensive line play its part. But 8 years into Stoops’ time at UK, the Wildcats have a solid identity. They play defense, they run, and they get themselves into competitive football games, something that was certainly an issue for pre-Stoops coaches. But if they’re going to reach the next level, they have to show at least a situational ability to pass the football.

For his part, Stoops has disclaimed any big changes. “We need playmakers,” he admitted in Monday’s press conference. “We will play better at certain positions and we all need to shoulder that responsibility. If it’s on the quarterback, it’s on the quarterback.”

Eight years into Stoops’ UK career, he’s stopped a number of opposing quarterbacks. His last big challenge might be solving his own QB situation.