A look at Kentucky football moving forward

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WYMT) - The Kentucky Wildcats defeated Eastern Michigan to improve to 2-0. However, the win did come at a cost for Mark Stoops’ squad. The Big Blue Nation held their collective breaths when junior quarterback Terry Wilson was taken down by a horse collar tackle in the third quarter of Saturday’s contest. When the play was over, it did not look like the end result would be positive.

The next day, Wilson had an MRI and it was confirmed: the dual threat QB had torn his left patellar tendon and would miss the rest of this season. So, how would Kentucky Football suffer from the loss, and can they still have a season that lives up to the expectations of Big Blue Nation?

It is not a secret that Wilson knows what it takes to win. Dating back to last season, Wilson led the Wildcats to a 12-3 record including the victory that broke the 31-year drought against the Florida Gators. It was also the first time that Kentucky had won in Gainesville since 1979. Wilson also engineered the final drive that resulted in the game-winning touchdown against Missouri. His voice in the offensive huddle will certainly be missed.

The junior quarterback has been highly sought after since he announced his transfer from Garden City Community College. Many teams, including Florida and Nebraska, fell in love with the JUCO signal caller. Wilson possesses the rare trait of not only being able to throw the ball downfield, but also take off and run for chunks of yards when no one is open. Last season, Wilson became the first player in the history of the program to produce over 1,500 passing yards and over 500 rushing yards. A lot of teams get enamored by the big play capabilities that a dual threat QB possess, and Wilson fits that mold.

All things considered, Wilson had a good season by and large in 2018, but the playbook was still limited due to Mark Stoops’ heavy run philosophy and Wilson’s lack of experience in “big games.” Coming into 2019, it was perceived that “Terry Touchdown” and the offense would most likely need to take on a larger role with the loss of seven starters on the defensive side of the ball. The offense scored 38 points in the season opener against Toledo as Wilson contributed 246 yards and two scores on 19 of 26 through the air.

Before he arrived at Kentucky, Eddie Gran had turned Cincinnati into one of the best passing teams in the nation. Ever since he’s been in the Commonwealth, however, Gran has implemented a heavy dose of the running game. Kentucky has never thrown for more than 188 yards per game in a season. The Wildcats have also never been higher than 96th in the country in passing yards per game. Still, the plan coming into the season was to open things up a bit more. “This year (Gran) wants to throw it more, be more explosive,” running back A.J. Rose said back in August at the start of the fall practice. “I can’t wait see what he’s got planned.”

There is no doubt that Wilson’s presence and leadership will be missed on the field but there is an adage in football that is used a lot and it applies here: next man up. So what we can expect from backup Quarterback Sawyer Smith? Here is what you need to know.

Like Wilson, Smith was also a three-star dual threat quarterback out of high school. Initially, the Florida native committed to UCF over Mississippi State and Syracuse among others. However Neal Brown, a former UK offensive coordinator, was the head coach at Troy University and got Smith to flip in the recruiting process. Three months after switching from UCF and committing to the Trojans, Smith signed his letter of intent.

The graduate transfer from Troy University has been in this position before. Smith was the backup to Kaleb Barker last season. Smith became the starter when Barker went down with a knee injury in the team’s sixth game. The then sophomore quarterback came in and threw a touchdown against Georgia State, helping the Trojans secure a 37-20 victory. Smith lost his first game as a starter against Liberty but went 5-1 after that, including a bowl victory against Buffalo in the Dollar General Bowl.

Smith threw for 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions during his two seasons at Troy. The junior quarterback had 14 touchdowns and six interceptions last season while airing it out for 1,669 yards. Smith threw for more than 300 yards twice. He threw for 317 yards and a touchdown while completing 81 percent of his passes against Louisiana-Lafayette. Smith also threw for 320 yards and four scores on 70 percent passing in the bowl game against the Bulls.

So what made Sawyer Smith transfer to Kentucky? Smith wanted a new home since he had two years of eligibility left and did not want to stick around since his college head coach moved on to West Virginia. While many figured that Wilson would start the next two seasons that Smith would be here, that did not matter. The real connection here though was inside linebacker coach Jon Sumrall. Sumrall was an assistant at Troy from 2015 to 2017 and Smith says they have a great relationship. “I love him. He’s a good dude. I love his family. We’ve always been close (back to) when he was at Troy.”

Even though he was labeled a dual-threat QB coming out of high school, Smith has evolved more into a pocket passer during his time in college, but has shown that his athleticism is deceptive at times. Smith and Troy did defeat Nebraska in Lincoln last season. Smith had a 57-yard run on a read option in that game.

“He's an accurate kid as far as the deep ball," quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw said. "He was extremely accurate down the field. He's great with RPOs (run-pass options), which is what we do. It's a really good fit for our offense. The fact that he's been throwing deep balls out here and throwing strikes, it's exciting. Obviously, he can run the ball.”

Smith has equipped himself well for the most part in all the games that he has been in, but this Saturday will arguably be the biggest test of his career. It will be the second time that Smith has gone up against a Power Five opponent in his collegiate career as Florida comes come to Lexington. One of the big questions coming into this matchup is how will Kentucky’s offense handle Florida’s defense on third down?

Miami only converted twice on 14 attempts, while UT-Martin was 5 for 14 against the Gators. Kentucky has converted on third down 48 percent of the time this season, good enough for just inside the top 40 nationally. Another key: protecting Smith. The Gators lead the country in sacks with 15. Kentucky has allowed only three sacks so far through two games. Smith will have to get rid of the ball quick against this feisty Florida defensive line.

Lastly, do not fear Big Blue Nation as this is not the first time that Kentucky has lost their starting quarterback early in the season. Most of you may remember that a similar situation happened in 2016 with Drew Barker going down. Stephen Johnson filled the hole and led the Wildcats to their first bowl game under Stoops.

In 2009, Mike Hartline was lost for the rest of the season as well and Rich Brooks had to adopt a “Quarterback by Committee” approach. The Wildcats used Morgan Newton, Will Fiddler and even Randall Cobb at times as Kentucky finished with a 7-6 record after having started 2-3 in their first five games. So, this is not the time to panic.

There is still a lot to feel good about including the announcement of the Xavier Peters’ immediate eligibility. Sawyer Smith has some talented playmakers around him. The ceiling for Big Blue is still pretty high.



 
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