Mark Story

New quarterback Sawyer Smith is Kentucky’s man of mystery

The 2019 Kentucky Wildcats football team is already breaking records.

When the Cats opened camp Friday, the Wildcats’ roster featured an unprecedented two quarterbacks who were the starters in bowl victories the season before.

You know Terry Wilson. Last year as a sophomore, the junior-college transfer from Oklahoma directed Kentucky to its best season in 41 years, capping off the Wildcats’ 10-3 year with a 27-24 victory over Penn State in the VRBO Citrus Bowl.

Unless you are a hopelessly addicted college football junkie, however, Sawyer Smith is likely a man of considerable mystery.

A season ago at Troy, Smith inherited the starting quarterback job in the season’s seventh game due to an injury to starter Kaleb Barker. Smith went on to win five of the seven games he started.

Ending with a flourish, the Cantomment, Fla., product earned MVP honors in the Dollar General Bowl after throwing for 320 yards and four touchdowns while leading Troy to a 42-32 victory over Buffalo.

“That was fun,” Smith said. “Being able to throw the ball around like I did, that was one of the funnest football games I ever played in.”

Now, thanks to the graduate-transfer quarterback carousel, bowl-winning QBs Wilson and Smith are UK teammates.

After Kentucky’s 2018 backup, Gunnar Hoak, used the grad-transfer rule this past spring to move to Ohio State, UK was left without a reserve quarterback who had ever appeared in a college football game.

Meanwhile, Smith was also using the graduate-transfer exit chute. Like Hoak, Smith’s value was enhanced because he was moving with two years of eligibility left.

Generally, when quarterbacks switch schools as grad transfers, they seek spots where there is no incumbent starter blocking their path to playing time.

Yet Smith came to Kentucky even though Wilson, barring injury, is certain to be the Cats’ starting quarterback in 2019 (and, presumably, 2020, too).

“I just got to kind of come to (UK) and be in the locker room and have an impact,” Smith said Friday at Kentucky’s annual football Media Day at Kroger Field. “That’s all I would ask for. Just play in the SEC. That’s kind of a good opportunity to be in.”

Smith played at Troy for Neal Brown, the former UK wide receiver and offensive coordinator, who is the new head man at West Virginia.

Last season, the 6-foot-3, 219-pound QB completed 62.9 percent of his passes while throwing for 1,669 yards with 14 touchdown passes vs. six interceptions.

“I love (to throw) the deep ball,” Smith says. “That’s my favorite thing to throw. I kind of surprise people running the ball, too.”

The UK football brain trust has found much to like on Smith’s video.

“Just the fact that he’s played in big games, he has that experience, he’s very poised,” UK head man Mark Stoops said. ”He can throw the ball. ... I like everything about him, love the way he plays, handles himself.”

Eddie Gran, the Kentucky offensive coordinator, says incorporating a grad transfer quarterback into a team can be a delicate task.

“If you get somebody that’s not right in the locker room, it can be a bad deal,” Gran said. “So far, (Smith has been) fantastic to be around. He wants to learn. He’s a team guy. (He) was a guy that was a backup, came in, led (Troy) to a lot of victories, did what the coaches asked of him. I loved, really, his humility, the way he approached that.”

When he decided to leave Troy, Smith said he did not consider following Brown to West Virginia. “To play for him was fun at Troy, but he went his way and I am doing my thing,” Smith said.

Sawyer Smith at Troy
New UK QB Sawyer Smith, right, played for former Kentucky player and assistant coach Neal Brown at Troy last season. Brown is now the head coach at West Virginia. Nati Harnik AP

Mark Perry, the ex-Lexington Catholic head coach who is now a UK quality control aide, was director of football operations last season at Troy.

Yet Smith says that new Wildcats’ inside linebackers coach Jon Sumrall, an assistant at Troy from 2015-17, is the person in Lexington he knows best.

“I love him,” Smith said of Sumrall. “He’s a good dude. I love his family. We’ve always been close (back to) when he was at Troy.”

Whether he ever makes a start for UK, Smith says he can contribute by making Wilson better.

“I can tell he’s the kind of guy who likes practice competition,” Smith says. “I am going to do what I can to make him better and, in doing that, make this team better.”

Whatever other weaknesses Kentucky may bring into the 2019 college football season, not many teams have a reigning bowl MVP as their backup quarterback.

“I just want to have a good effect on this football team,” Sawyer Smith says.

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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.
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