Mark Story

Going into 2019 season, Stoops wants more from quarterback Terry Wilson

Mark Stoops uncomfortable basking in success

Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops was asked Monday, March 4, 2019, if he had time to sit back and enjoy the success of last season. The Wildcats went 10-3 in 2018 with a win over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl.
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Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops was asked Monday, March 4, 2019, if he had time to sit back and enjoy the success of last season. The Wildcats went 10-3 in 2018 with a win over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl.

Historically, successful quarterbacks at Kentucky have made substantial jumps in performance in their second seasons as starters.

Andre Woodson went from six touchdown passes in 2005 to 31 in 2006.

Mike Hartline completed 55.3 percent of his throws in 2008 and 59.4 percent the following season.

Stephen Johnson was a 54.7-percent passer in 2016 and a 59.8-percent passer in 2017.

Given that, there is every reason to think Terry Wilson’s second season as UK’s starting quarterback in 2019 should feature a noticeable improvement.

“If you look at Stephen Johnson between year one and year two, the improvement you can make at just that position can be very drastic,” Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said. “(Entering 2019), I think we can make a big jump being more efficient at the quarterback position.”

Kentucky football offensive coordinator Eddie Gran talks about the development of quarterback Terry Wilson. Gran says Wilson's confidence has grown. UK plays Penn State in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, 2019 in Orlando.

On Monday, Stoops and UK football launched a journey that few Wildcats teams have ever undertaken — they began spring practice with the challenge of maintaining major success.

The 2018 Wildcats (10-3) reached 10 wins for only the third time in school history. UK beat Florida for the first time since 1986. Kentucky produced a winning SEC mark (5-3) for the first time since 1977. Beating Penn State 27-24 in the VRBO Citrus Bowl gave the Cats their first New Year’s Day Bowl victory since 1952.

Rather than complacency, Stoops says he’s seen signs the returning Kentucky players have ingrained the price that winning requires. “I notice our team, the habits are better,” Stoops said. “We’re cleaner; they saw what it looked like to have success.”

Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops talks about the promotion of Brad White to defensive coordinator and the hiring of Jon Sumrall as inside linebackers coach. Sumrall played linebacker at UK under Guy Morriss and Rich Brooks.

For Kentucky to back up last year’s bounty with more winning in 2019, it will likely need its junior-to-be quarterback to elevate his game.

A season ago, Wilson handled a very delicate assignment with, mostly, aplomb.

As a first-year starter, the junior college transfer was handed the controls of a veteran Kentucky team that had been built to win in 2018.

Kentucky had a stout defense, a power-based rushing attack and a veteran offensive line that had proven more effective opening holes for running plays than in protecting passers.

What UK mostly asked of Wilson was “don’t screw things up.”

Though he hit a rough patch in the middle of the season (see at Texas A&M and versus Vanderbilt), Wilson mostly avoided game-altering mistakes and contributed some timely clutch performances.

Accounting for three touchdowns, Wilson was one of the stars of the program-defining win at Florida. The QB directed UK on a final-series TD drive that yielded a miraculous victory at Missouri.

For a quarterback, “winning 10 games in the SEC is a pretty big deal,” Stoops said.

Overall, the 6-foot-3, 205-pound product of Oklahoma City ran for 547 yards and four touchdowns and threw for 1,889 yards and 11 scores.

Wilson’s completion percentage, 67.2, was stellar, too. Yet one had the sense that Kentucky coaches felt like that at least partly owed to the QB not taking risks to convert some available opportunities.

This season, with star running back Benny Snell and pass-rushing maven Josh Allen among several of Kentucky’s 2018 standouts gone to the NFL, UK is apt to need more playmaking from its quarterback.

Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops talks to the media after his team’s first day of spring practice on Monday, March 4, 2019. The Wildcats must replace several experienced players from last year’s 10-3 team that won the Citrus Bowl.

Wilson does not, however, operate in a vacuum. For Kentucky to enhance its passing game, it needs receivers who can produce.

In slot receiver Lynn Bowden (67 catches, 745 yards, five touchdowns last year as sophomore), UK will feature one of the SEC’s dynamic threats. “You would like to get (Bowden) the ball more and I believe we will,” Stoops said.

Lynn Bowden has fun take on his relationship with Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson.

Other than Bowden, however, Kentucky has not one proven wideout on its roster. “The outside wide receiver position, we have to improve,” Stoops said. “… All those guys, they need to step up.”

While waiting for some playmaking to emerge at receiver, Kentucky expects its starting quarterback to be a more refined product in 2019.

Stoops says Wilson and UK quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw have spent the weeks since the Citrus Bowl immersed in film study.

“It starts with (Wilson) fundamentally playing the game and studying fundamentals and being more efficient and more accurate,” Stoops said. “They have worked hard.”

If UK quarterback history holds, the arc of Terry Wilson’s performance in his second season as the Wildcats’ starter should head upward.

Asked last month what he expects from Wilson, Stoops said “growth in all areas — decision-making, accuracy, converting on some of the opportunities that we have down the field. We weren’t far off on a lot, and we need to improve on some of those. And we will, and he will.”


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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.