From Touchdown Terry to Starting Sawyer, how does the map change for Kentucky football?
Sunday afternoon brought confirmation of what seemed all but certain on Saturday night — UK starting quarterback Terry Wilson is gone for the remainder of the 2019 season, the victim of a torn patellar tendon sustained on a from-behind tackle in the third quarter of Kentucky’s win over Eastern Michigan. Kentucky is relatively well prepared for such an event.
Wilson played in pain for much of the 2018 season with a right knee injury sustained in UK’s overtime loss to Texas A&M. A hobbled Wilson was not an especially effective Wilson, and yet Kentucky hung in for much of its 10-win season with a mobile quarterback who wasn’t especially mobile.
Meanwhile, Kentucky will hand the reins to Troy transfer Sawyer Smith. Smith isn’t new to this situation. In 2018, Troy had Smith backing up starting QB Kaleb Barker. When Barker tore an ACL in the 6th game, Smith took over. Troy was 5-1 before Barker’s injury, and went 5-2 in Smith’s 7 starts, as the then-sophomore passed for 1,669 yards, 14 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. Smith also rushed for 191 yards and a score — not quite as much ground production as Barker, who had 261 yards and 3 scores in his half-season.
In Troy’s appearance in the Dollar General Bowl, Smith was 31-for-44 passing for 320 yards and 4 touchdowns.
It’s not the first time Kentucky has had to swap QBs in midseason, either. In 2016, with Mark Stoops’ future in Lexington on the line, highly touted starting QB Drew Barker went down after Week 2 with a back injury that never really healed. Kentucky, under the leadership of current offensive coordinator Eddie Gran, went from an offense with plenty of 4-wide passing plays to an RPO-based attack led by JUCO quarterback Stephen Johnson, who promptly led Kentucky to 2 bowls in his 2 seasons in Lexington.
This time, the switch seems to be the opposite. Smith isn’t completely without speed, so Kentucky won’t totally throw out the QB run game or RPO stuff — but the Cats probably will rely on it much less. That said, Smith can throw. His first pass as a Wildcat was a nicely thrown deep ball on the sideline that senior receiver Ahmad Wagner turned into a 54-yard touchdown pass. Smith managed the game well, going 5-for-9 passing for 76 yards and 2 touchdowns, and carrying the ball once for 5 yards.
Last year, Kentucky knocked off Florida with Wilson making his second start ever for the school. This year, Smith will be a novice in UK starting terms, but his experience and his potential in stretching the field will be a different look than Florida would have expected.
In the short term, the loss of Wilson mostly makes Smith virtually indispensible. Stoops said on his postgame show that sophomore Walker Wood is the new backup QB. Wood has never thrown a pass in a college game and has spent much of his time on campus dealing with injuries. True freshman Amani Gilmore is the only other healthy scholarship QB. Should Smith sustain any serious injury, Kentucky would likely have to consider Lynn Bowden as a quarterback. Bowden has run a dozen or so Wildcat plays and his athleticism might lend itself to a short-term solution, should one be needed.
In the long term, Kentucky still is on pace to make a 4th consecutive bowl game. With Smith at quarterback, will Kentucky’s ceiling be as high? Can they have a realistic shot at knocking off Florida this weekend or Missouri at home, or Mississippi State or South Carolina on the road? Even if the answer is “no,” Kentucky could still manage a 7-5 season. Smith, Stoops and Big Blue Nation hope that the answer is “yes,” which makes Saturday’s home game against Florida an even-more-crucial testing ground for the rest of Kentucky’s season.