Mark Story

The pluses and minuses of Terry Wilson as Kentucky’s starting quarterback

Terry Wilson was named Kentucky’s starting quarterback. “He’s a dynamic guy, but we haven’t seen him full-go because he has not been (in a game) since he’s been here. So, kind of interested to see how the year goes, myself,” Coach Mark Stoops said.
Terry Wilson was named Kentucky’s starting quarterback. “He’s a dynamic guy, but we haven’t seen him full-go because he has not been (in a game) since he’s been here. So, kind of interested to see how the year goes, myself,” Coach Mark Stoops said.

Mark Stoops’ announcement that Terry Wilson will be the Kentucky starting quarterback when UK opens its season Saturday against Central Michigan was not a surprise.

In recent weeks, the “buzz” coming out of the UK camp suggested that Wilson, the dual-threat, junior-college transfer, had taken the lead over the pocket-passing Gunnar Hoak as the two redshirt sophomores dueled to replace the graduated Stephen Johnson.

“With all the things that we looked at, we decided on Terry,” Stoops said Monday at his weekly news conference. “We’re excited about Terry and what he’s going to do this week.”

Is Wilson the best choice for a Kentucky team with 17 returning starters back from last season’s Music City Bowl team? Let’s examine the pluses and minuses, as best we can, of a quarterback decision involving players none of us have ever seen in an FBS game.

If you attended Kentucky’s spring game, you saw one moment that encapsulated the tantalizing potential of Wilson.

On Monday, Aug. 27, 2018, Kentucky head football coach Mark Stoops talked about Landon Young’s injury, Josh Paschal’s status, John Schlarman’s illness and the winner of the quarterback battle. UK opens the season Saturday against Central Michigan.

Late in the second quarter, Wilson pulled the football on a read-option play and exploded around left end. Had it been a real game, instead of an exhibition in which QBs were “down” on touch, it would have been a 58-yard touchdown jaunt.

Kentucky might never have had a player as fast as Wilson as its starting quarterback.

In his one season as the starting QB at Garden City Community College in Kansas last year, Wilson ran for 518 yards and five touchdowns.

It is possible the big-play ability that UK lost from its backfield when running back Boom Williams departed after the 2016 season will be supplied in the coming season by Wilson.

QB practice
Quarterbacks Terry Wilson (3) and Gunnar Hoak (12) threw together during a Kentucky practice. UK opens its season against Central Michigan on Sept. 1 at Kroger Field. Matt Goins

Stoops said that the disappointing news from the weekend that UK starting left tackle Landon Young is lost for the season due to a torn ACL in his left knee played no role in the choice of Wilson.

Nevertheless, it cannot hurt when you are breaking in a new left tackle to have a quarterback with dynamic mobility.

On the debit side, all indications are Wilson is not a finished product as a passer.

Last season in junior college, the 6-foot-3, 205-pound signal caller completed a so-so 57.6 percent of his passes while throwing 11 interceptions. He also passed for 2,133 yards and 26 TDs.

In the UK spring game, Wilson completed only 10 of 24 passes.

Earlier this month, Garden City Coach Jeff Sims said Wilson, as a passer, 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 quarterback decision cuts two ways, of course. Obviously, the outcome at UK is a disappointment for Hoak, a 6-4, 206-pound product of Dublin, Ohio, who is about to start his third season in the Kentucky program.

Gunnar Hoak passing in practice jersey
In three spring games at the University of Kentucky, Gunnar Hoak has completed 34 of 54 passes for 352 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Britney Howard UK Athletics

Earlier, Stoops had expressed a desire to play both his team’s top two quarterbacks in the opener. On Monday, he sounded less resolute in that determination. “I don’t know how that is going to play out,” Stoops said.

Wilson and Hoak are in the same academic class. So if Wilson ends the 2018 season with a solid hold on the UK starting QB position, Hoak faces a decision about his future.

In the short term, Hoak should focus on Stephen Johnson’s UK experience.

Just two seasons ago, Drew Barker emerged from preseason camp as Kentucky’s starting quarterback with Johnson slated as his backup.

After the first series of that season’s third game, however, a back injury forced Barker from the field. Johnson replaced him and never exited. Over the next two years, Johnson led UK to 14 wins, eight SEC victories, five road wins and two bowl trips.

So you never know.

Stephen Johnson throwing
Over the past two seasons, Kentucky went 14-10 with eight SEC wins and and five road victories in the games in which Stephen Johnson (15) took the preponderance of snaps at quarterback. With Johnson’s graduation and Drew Barker having given up his senior season of eligibility, UK will open the 2018 season without a quarterback on its roster who has ever played in an FBS game. Michael Reaves

Still, in a season when a veteran Kentucky team seems stocked for success if its quarterback play is sufficient, Wilson seems like a logical choice.

A high school star in Oklahoma, Wilson began his college career at Oregon. After redshirting as a true freshman in 2016, he left the Ducks in the following spring practice after it became clear that incumbent starting QB Justin Herbert was going to retain his job.

Wilson transferred to Garden City “with one goal in mind — putting himself in position to be a starting quarterback at a Power Five (conference) school,” Sims said.

Last December, schools with far greater football pedigrees than Kentucky — Florida, Nebraska, Texas — made big recruiting pushes for Wilson.

“I was completely surprised,” Sims said of Wilson’s choice of UK. “But Terry saw a path at Kentucky to what he wanted.”

Now that Terry Wilson has what he wanted, the success of the 2018 UK football season rides on what he does with it.

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