John Clay

Grad transfer quarterbacks an SEC trend. How will Sawyer Smith fit at UK?

When it comes to SEC football, all the rage of the quickly approaching 2019 season is not stadium alcohol sales, or mammoth video screens, or new coaching schemes or any of those behind-the-scenes things.

The next big thing in SEC football is graduate transfer quarterbacks.

No fewer than seven will dot the landscape this season, starting with LSU’s returning starter Joe Burrow, in his second Baton Rouge season after graduating from Ohio State. Six newcomers join Burrow, including Missouri’s Kelly Bryant (formerly of Clemson), Arkansas’ Ben Hicks (SMU) and Nick Starkel (Texas A&M), Mississippi State’s Tommy Stevens (Penn State), Vanderbilt’s Riley Neal (Ball State) and, closer to home, Kentucky’s Sawyer Smith (Troy).

Why the sudden influx of grad student signal-callers?

“For me, growing up you hear about ‘SEC, SEC, the best of the best, the closest you’re going to be to the NFL,” said Missouri’s Bryant at last week’s SEC Football Media Days in Hoover, Ala. “The amount of guys they put out every year, it’s hard to not acknowledge that as true.”

When Bryant lost his job to freshman sensation Trevor Lawrence at Clemson, the 6-foot-3, 225-pounder from Calhoun Falls, South Carolina, decided to join up with Missouri offensive coordinator Derek Dooley, who helped turn quarterback Drew Lock into a second-round pick of the NFL’s Denver Broncos. By appearing in just four games last year, Bryant was able to take advantage of a new NCAA rule allowing him to redshirt. “People are calling it the ‘Kelly Bryant Rule,’” he said last week.

Meanwhile, Hicks played for Chad Morris before the former SMU coach departed for Arkansas. Starkel left one SEC West team for another. Stevens played for Joe Moorhead when the current Mississippi State head coach was Penn State’s offensive coordinator. A three-year starter at Ball State, the 6-6 Neal saw opportunity at Vandy, where Kyle Shurmur finally graduated.

Will there be opportunity for Smith at Kentucky? After all, the Cats return junior quarterback Terry Wilson, who helped the Cats to a 10-3 record and a Citrus Bowl win in his first season as the UK starter in 2018.

“Sawyer’s going to be a big piece of it,” said Coach Mark Stoops last week of UK’s quarterback situation. “How big? I don’t know.”

Smith started the Trojans’ final seven games last season, going 5-2 while completing 62.9 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions on the season. In the Dollar General Bowl, Smith hit 31 of 44 passes for 320 yards and four touchdowns in Troy’s 42-32 win over Buffalo.

Plus, Smith played for former UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown, the Troy head coach who has moved on to West Virginia. “He’s a really talented player, but he’s also played in big games,” said Stoops, who had lost backups Gunnar Hoak and Danny Clark as transfers.

But Wilson has played in some big games, too. He led UK to its 27-16 win at Florida, the Cats’ first win over the Gators since 1986. He finished the year having completed 67.2 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also rushed for 547 yards and four scores. The year of experience, in his first season in the program after transferring from junior college, should do nothing but help.

“We expect him to make a big jump,” said Stoops last week. “And Terry’s worked extremely hard in the offseason just fundamentally getting better, understanding the offense, getting better around him with the wide receivers.”

Maybe Smith picks up the offense and quickly shows he’s the better quarterback in training camp. That’s possible, but the more likely scenario is the Cantonment, Florida, native provides needed competition to push Wilson and an experienced alternative should the returning starter become injured or falter.

As with his fellow league coaches with grad transfer quarterbacks, Stoops knows one thing for sure.

“I’m excited to have him,” said the coach.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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