John Clay

Why couldn’t Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops have just seen into the future?

You’d think with that big, fat TV check from the conference office, and the corporate sponsorships, and the high price of tickets, UK could have found a little money in the athletics budget to buy Mark Stoops what he needed most.

A crystal ball.

A crystal ball so Stoops could have seen he’d need a third-string quarterback who could play like a first-string quarterback.

After all, doesn’t every Power Five program have one of those? You know, a third-string quarterback that can beat a top-10 team on the road, as Kentucky failed to do last Saturday in the swimming pool that was Sanford Stadium at Georgia. You know, a third-stringer who can perform as well or better than the second-stringer or the first-stringer or the wide receiver you moved to quarterback because he’s the best player on the team.

“Every play goes through him,” said Stoops on Monday of the Lynn Bowden Experience that has been the Kentucky offense the past two weeks.

With Bowden behind center, UK beat SEC-winless Arkansas. With Bowden behind center, it lost at No. 10 Georgia to fall to 3-4 overall and 1-4 in the league.

For this, surely there is only the head coach to blame.

Shouldn’t Stoops have known that “Touchdown Terry” Wilson, the same quarterback who started all 13 games in last year’s record-breaking 10-3 season, would tear the patellar tendon in his knee the second game of the season and be lost for the year? We all saw that coming, right?

Shouldn’t Stoops have planned for the fact senior-to-be quarterback Gunnar Hoak would graduate early and return to his Ohio roots and enroll at Ohio State, where he is now the third-string QB? Had Hoak stuck around, he’d be UK’s No. 1 quarterback right now, which is what we like to call irony.

Shouldn’t Stoops have known that Sawyer Smith, the grad transfer quarterback from Troy brought in to replace Hoak would injure his wrist against Florida and his shoulder against Mississippi State? Talk about poor planning.

Shouldn’t Stoops have known that Danny Clark, the sophomore-to-be who was No. 3 on last year’s depth chart, would also decide to join the cool kids in the transfer portal and head elsewhere? The Akron native is currently at a junior college.

Wait, there’s more. The plan was to groom Nick Scalzo as the third-team quarterback, until the true freshman tore his ACL the first fall scrimmage. It’s also obvious UK would prefer not to play true freshman Amani Gilmore this season.

As for Walker Wood, No. 3 on the depth chart, the coaches obviously don’t believe the former Lafayette High School star is ready to be thrown into the fire. They could be wrong, but they are the ones who see the sophomore every day in practice.

Actually, Kentucky’s would-be quarterback will start for Alabama on Saturday against Arkansas. That’s Mac Jones, the Florida native who committed to Kentucky, then de-committed when Nick Saban called. Jones is expected to replace the injured Tua Tagovailoa against the Razorbacks.

Or maybe Kentucky’s would-be quarterback is in Miami, where another UK commit/de-commit Jarren Williams was the Hurricanes’ starter as a true freshman the first six games of the season before injuring his shoulder. Williams and N’Kosi Perry are both ahead of highly recruited Tate Martell, who left Ohio State in search of playing time only to find his path blocked there, too.

And there’s the rub. In today’s football, every quarterback wants to find a way to play. If they can’t play one place, they transfer to another. Undergrads. Graduates. It doesn’t matter. We are in the era of college football free agency. And on that merry-go-round, someone’s bound to end up without a perfect option at arguably the team’s most important position.

Maybe you think that’s Stoops. Maybe he should have been better prepared for the unusual situation Kentucky finds itself in at present. Maybe other schools have a third-stringer currently holding a clipboard who could step right in and win in the SEC.

Personally, I don’t remember seeing one in the past, or doubt I’ll see one in the future.

But then I don’t have a crystal ball, either.

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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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