John Clay

As UK’s starter vs. Florida, Sawyer Smith will need a hand from his teammates

Josh Moore, John Clay share thoughts on UK’s win over Eastern Michigan

Lexington Herald-Leader sports columnist John Clay and beat writer Josh Moore share their impressions from Kentucky football's 38-17 win over Eastern Michigan on September 7, 2019, at Kroger Field.
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Lexington Herald-Leader sports columnist John Clay and beat writer Josh Moore share their impressions from Kentucky football's 38-17 win over Eastern Michigan on September 7, 2019, at Kroger Field.

We knew Kentucky football was losing Josh Allen, Benny Snell, Lonnie Johnson, Mike Edwards, George Asafo-Adjei, Derrick Baity, Darius West, CJ Conrad, Bunchy Stallings, Jordan Jones and more from last year’s 10-3 Citrus Bowl champion team.

We didn’t know the Cats would be losing Terry Wilson, too..

We didn’t know that until the third quarter of the season’s second game when UK’s junior quarterback, and second-year starter, fell victim to a horse-collar tackle that caused his foot to catch awkwardly in the Kroger Field artificial turf and his knee to buckle beneath him during UK’s 38-17 victory over Eastern Michigan. Sunday brought the official word that Wilson is out for the year with a torn patellar tendon.

We knew about the outside linebackers who would be replacing Allen, the running back-by-committee replacing Snell, the wholesale reboot of the secondary replacing the veteran quintet that would be stepping into starter roles in the Kentucky secondary. Now, say hello to Sawyer Smith, the grad transfer quarterback from Troy with the chilled-out manner, the notable Division I experience — Smith was MVP of the Dollar General Bowl, after all — and the distinction of more than likely making his first SEC start against he Florida Gators. Welcome to the big time.

Only it won’t be just Smith who will need to raise his game. You’ve heard the coaches say it ad nauseam, but it’s true. The horses in the huddle surrounding Smith on the offense, and his teammates on defense must step up their games just a few percentage points when Florida comes to town in search or revenge for last year’s 27-16 loss to the Cats in The Swamp.

For instance:

Lynn Bowden: Arguably Kentucky’s best player labeled his play “average” through the first two weeks after Saturday night’s win. Bowden said he needs to do more. Bowden said he hasn’t been helping his team. Let’s not be so hard on ourselves. Bowden does have 13 catches for 131 yards and a score. He completed a 32-yard pass out of the Wildcat to Wilson on Saturday. He’s still a threat every time he touches the ball. But Bowden is right that he hasn’t cashed in on that big-play threat. Not yet.

UK’s secondary: Asked for his opinion on his secondary play Saturday, Stoops said, “OK.” There were some good moments, i.e. a couple of interceptions. There are some not-so-good moments, i.e. Eastern Michigan receivers open in green space, one for a touchdown. Meanwhile, Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks completed 25 of 27 passes in UF’s 45-0 win over UT Martin on Saturday.

Smith has to hold his own, as well, of course. In our limited contract with the Cantonment, Fla., native appears to be a laid-back sort. Stoops said Saturday he doubts the game will be too big for him. In the two preseason practices we were allowed to watch, Smith showed a strong arm. And the coaches have complimented his deep-ball ability.

Still, Saturday is a tough ask. Florida’s edge rush tandem of Jonathan Greenard, a Louisville transfer, and Jabari Zuniga terrorized Miami’s subpar offensive line in the opener. Gators defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who has gone from Georgia to Louisville to Mississippi State to now Florida (second season) on the UK schedule, loves nothing more than throwing the kitchen sink at new quarterbacks. Grantham can be aggressive to the extreme.

That didn’t work last year. In just his second Division I start, Wilson threw for two touchdowns and rushed for 105 yards and another score. You could make a strong case he was the difference in the Kentucky win. The difference this year? Terry Touchdown probably won’t be on the field. It’s up to the new guy, Sawyer Smith, who’ll need some help from his newfound friends.

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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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