Mark Story

Which 'man of mystery' will claim Kentucky's starting quarterback job?

In three spring games at the University of Kentucky, quarterback Gunnar Hoak has completed 34 of 54 passes for 354 yards with four touchdown throws and no interceptions. The redshirt sophomore from Dublin, Ohio, has never thrown a pass in a real game for UK, however.
In three spring games at the University of Kentucky, quarterback Gunnar Hoak has completed 34 of 54 passes for 354 yards with four touchdown throws and no interceptions. The redshirt sophomore from Dublin, Ohio, has never thrown a pass in a real game for UK, however. aslitz@herald-leader.com

In Mark Stoops' interview with a Birmingham, Ala., all-sports radio station last week, the Kentucky football coach seemed content to let the battle to be the 2018 Wildcats starting quarterback be a protracted one.

"I don't feel any need to rush that decision," Stoops said on WJOX-FM. "We'll see how it goes this fall."

In my lifetime, I can't recall a more mystery-filled UK quarterback competition than the battle to be the Wildcats' starter this fall.

Redshirt sophomores Gunnar Hoak and Terry Wilson are thought to be the leaders to replace the graduated Stephen Johnson. Redshirt freshmen Danny Clark and Walker Wood are also fighting to get in the mix.

Regardless of who wins the job, Kentucky will open the coming season with a starting QB who has never thrown a pass — or even appeared in a real game — in Division I football.

Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops talks to the media after his team’s spring game on Friday night.

The last time the Wildcats entered a season without a quarterback who had started at least one prior game for UK was 2008.

Then, presumptive starter Mike Hartline — the obvious number one QB that year once Curtis Pulley was dismissed from the team late in the summer — had at least completed four of six passes the season before as Andre Woodson's backup.

This year, the Kentucky quarterback position is a complete blank slate. That abundant mystery gives considerable spice to the battle to claim the UK starting job.

Gunnar Hoak II
Kentucky quarterback Gunnar Hoak (12) completed 14 of 25 passes for 121 yards and a touchdown in the 2018 Blue-White Game. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

Among the perceived top two contenders, Hoak would seem the safer choice.

Because he enrolled in college early out of high school, the 6-foot-4, 206-pound product of Dublin, Ohio, has already played in three UK spring games.

As a pocket passer, Hoak has looked good in those Blue-White games, too. He has shown a quick release while completing a combined 34 of 54 passes for 352 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions.

In Kentucky's most-recent spring game, Hoak gave us a glimpse of what the UK offense could be at its best with him at the controls when he engineered a 65-yard touchdown drive by completing seven of nine passes.

Since he has been in the Wildcats' program the longest, one would surmise Hoak has the firmest grasp from among the QB contenders on the UK offensive system.

For the impending season, Kentucky returns one of the best running backs in school history in Benny Snell; an offensive line with a veteran player at all five positions; and a defense with eight returning starters.

So UK co-offensive coordinators Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw going with the safest option at QB would have much to recommend it.

Yet it is also a reality of Kentucky football that the margin between winning seasons and sitting home during bowl season tends to be reed-thin.

Terry Wilson drops back
Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson (3) completed 10 of 24 passes for 131 yards with an interception in the 2018 Blue-White Game. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

That would be the rationale for making a riskier choice at quarterback if it meant deploying a player more capable of producing game-altering plays in favor of the Cats.

At least by perception, that is the potential Wilson brings to the UK QB competition.

The 6-3, 205-pound product of Oklahoma City began his college career at Oregon. After losing out to Justin Herbert in the Ducks' quarterback battle in spring practice of 2017, Wilson transferred to Garden City Community College in Kansas.

Last fall as a juco, Wilson threw for 2,133 yards and 26 touchdowns and ran for 518 yards and five TDs. Of concern, Wilson completed a so-so 57.6 percent of his passes at Garden City while throwing 11 picks.

Danny Clark
Kentucky redshirt freshman quarterback Danny Clark (8) is trying to battle his way into the Wildcats starting quarterback derby in which redshirt sophomores Gunnar Hoak and Terry Wilson are the perceived leaders. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

In the Blue-White Game, two plays flashed the big-play potential Wilson brings.

Late in the second quarter, Wilson exploded around left end on a called running play that would have gone for a 58-yard touchdown in a live game.

Early in half two, on a third-and-10 from his own 35, Wilson rolled out at near full speed and threw a dart that went for a 24-yard gain.

Yet, overall, Wilson completed only 10 of 24 passes in the spring game. Given that Stoops has said greater efficiency in the passing game is job one for the Kentucky offense in 2018, that was worrisome.

Walker Wood
Former Lafayette star Walker Wood, a Kentucky redshirt freshman, will try to become the first quarterback from Lexington to start for UK since Shane Boyd of Henry Clay in 2004. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

What makes the choice between the polished pocket passer in Hoak and the dynamic dual threat in Wilson so fascinating is that everything we know about them is based on recruiting hype and/or UK spring football games.

Both are full-on men of mystery.

With the stakes so high for a Kentucky team that otherwise returns 16 starters, that is what makes the UK quarterback battle of 2018 one of the most intriguing and consequential in recent Wildcats football history.

Mark Story: 859-231-3230; Twitter@ markcstory

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