As a junior college head football coach, Jeff Sims has many worries more pressing than devising game plans.
Some players arrive in juco football because they lack the grades to play at an NCAA-affiliated school. Others are there looking for a fresh start after disciplinary problems.
Those players tend to need a lot of supervision from a coach.
In Terry Wilson’s one year of playing quarterback for Sims at Garden City Community College in Kansas, the new Kentucky Wildcats signal caller was the exact opposite.
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“Showed up on time. Sat up front, attentive. Made good grades,” Sims said. “I never had to look at his academic reports (with fear of problems). I never had to worry about a drug test. Such a good person.”
When Kentucky kicks off its 2018 football season Sept. 1 against Central Michigan, it is unclear who will replace the graduated Stephen Johnson as the Cats’ starting QB.
The top two candidates are: 1.) redshirt sophomore Gunnar Hoak, a traditional pocket passer who is starting his third year in the UK program; 2.) Wilson, also a redshirt sophomore, who is a dual-threat who turned down scholarship offers from Florida, Texas and Nebraska last December.
“I think they both throw the ball well,” Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said at the start of UK’s fall camp. “Terry for sure runs the ball better than Gunnar.”
For UK and Wilson, the paths that led to their pairing have been filled with unlikely turns.
An unexpected union
In its 2018 recruiting class, Kentucky was all-in at the quarterback position for more than a year with Georgia high school star Jarren Williams.
Williams first committed to UK in June 2016. After his recruiting stock “blew up” in April 2017, Williams decommitted. Yet only a month later, the 6-foot-2, 205-pound product of Lawrenceville, Ga., re-pledged to the Cats.
That lasted until November of last year, when Williams again reneged on his commitment to Kentucky and wound up signing with the Miami Hurricanes.
Desperately late in the recruiting cycle, Mark Stoops and Co. found themselves scrambling to find a quarterback.
That led Kentucky to Wilson — no stranger himself to unanticipated recruiting twists.
A star at Del City High School in Oklahoma, Wilson originally committed to Nebraska. Upon further review, however, the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Wilson concluded that then-Cornhuskers head man Mike Riley had more history of drop-back passers at QB than dual threats.
So in September 2015, Wilson flipped his commitment to Oregon, impressed by then-offensive coordinator Scott Frost and the Ducks’ past success with QBs who could both run and throw.
Wilson spent his true freshman season in Eugene in 2016 as a redshirt. During a 4-8 year that ultimately cost Mark Helfrich the Oregon head coaching job, the Ducks turned to a different true freshman QB, Justin Herbert, as their starter.
The following spring, new Oregon head man Willie Taggart declared every job open. Wilson and another Ducks backup QB, Travis Jonsen, were given a chance to dislodge Herbert.
Instead, when Wilson dropped to No. 3 on the spring depth chart, he announced plans to transfer.
When asked earlier this month if competing for the starting job at Oregon would help him in the battle for the top spot at Kentucky, Wilson demurred.
“That’s past me. I’m not really worried about it,” Wilson said.
‘A work in progress’
Wilson arrived at Garden City Community College with a definite plan to get his career back on track.
“His goal was to be a starting quarterback at a Power Five (conference) school,” Sims said. “He’s very mature. He knew where he wanted to end up.”
On the field last season, Wilson completed a so-so 57.6 percent of his passes while throwing for 2,133 yards with 26 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He also ran for 518 yards and five TDs.
As a passer, Sims said Wilson is “a work in progress to some extent. And Kentucky should be happy about that. They are getting a player with upside, a player with room to get better.”
A dynamic threat when he runs, Wilson is sometimes reluctant to do so. “I think he doesn’t want people to see him as a ‘running quarterback,’” Sims said.
The crux of the current UK QB battle would seem to be: Hoak must be able to throw the ball so much more efficiently than Wilson that it negates the extra dimension the latter could provide the Kentucky offense with his legs.
As the Wildcats’ brain trust works toward figuring that dilemma out, Wilson’s approach at Kentucky sounds similar to the one he took at community college that so impressed his head coach.
“The (other UK players) see how hard I work,” Wilson said. “They see I am always doing the right thing and just trying to get better. So those guys are starting to trust me.”
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory
Scouting the Cats
This is the fourth of nine stories looking at the 2018 Kentucky football team position by position.
Scouting the quarterbacks
▪ The main man: Who knows? Redshirt sophomore Gunnar Hoak has been through three spring practices and is now in his third fall camp. He is presumably the most knowledgeable of all UK QB candidates about Eddie Gran’s offensive system. Junior college transfer Terry Wilson, a third-year sophomore who spent his freshman year as a redshirt at Oregon, offers dynamic, dual-threat potential.
▪ The supporting cast: Redshirt freshman Danny Clark was a longtime Ohio State recruiting commit who ended up with UK after parting ways with the Buckeyes. The 6-foot-2, 232-pound Columbus, Ohio, product is reputed to have a strong arm but questionable accuracy (completed only 54.9 percent of his passes as a high school senior). Walker Wood used to give Lafayette High School fans a pretty good Johnny Manziel imitation on Friday nights. The 6-foot, 190-pound redshirt freshman has battled injuries but said at UK’s media day that he felt healthier than at anytime since signing with the Cats.
▪ Outlook: Kentucky will begin 2018 without a QB who has ever played in a Division I college game. With 16 starters returning from 2017 in a program that has played in back-to-back bowls, UK should field a good team in 2018 — if it gets competent quarterback play.