Mark Story

Terry Wilson learned some hard lessons in 2018. Have they set him up for a huge 2019?

Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson’s ready for year two

Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson talks to the media at UK Football Media Day on Aug. 2, 2019, at Kroger Field. Wilson started all 13 games for the Wildcats in 2018. The Cats open the 2019 season Aug. 31 against Toledo.
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Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson talks to the media at UK Football Media Day on Aug. 2, 2019, at Kroger Field. Wilson started all 13 games for the Wildcats in 2018. The Cats open the 2019 season Aug. 31 against Toledo.

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Scouting the Cats

University of Kentucky football beat writer Josh Moore and columnist Mark Story are examining the 2019 Wildcats position by position through a series of nine stories leading up to the start of their season on Aug. 31 against Toledo. Click below to read previous installments in the series.

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In Terry Wilson’s initial season as a Kentucky Wildcat, he became only the third quarterback in school history to direct UK to a 10-win football season.

The Oklahoma City product became the first Cats QB to beat Florida since 1986 and the first to do it in Gainesville since 1979.

A transfer from Garden City Community College in Kansas, Wilson put a capper on the 2018 season by becoming the first Kentucky Wildcats quarterback to direct his team to a New Year’s Day bowl victory since the 1952 Cotton Bowl.

Terry Wilson in Citrus Bowl
Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson (3) led the 2018 Wildcats to their first 10-win season since 1977 and first New Year’s Day bowl victory since the 1952 Cotton Bowl. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

Yet in a season of accomplishment, the pivotal moment in Wilson’s first UK campaign came after back-to-back shaky efforts at Texas A&M and against Vanderbilt imperiled his hold on the Kentucky starting job.

The lessons learned through that adversity should have UK’s junior quarterback ready to take a substantial step upward in 2019. “It’s like night and day where (Wilson) is now compared to last year,” says UK quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw.

Last season, UK took a 5-0 record to Texas A&M. Before a raucous Kyle Field crowd of 99,829, the 6-foot-3, 208-pound Wilson endured a nightmare showing.

Other than a “toss pass” that flanker Lynn Bowden turned into a 54-yard touchdown, Wilson accumulated only 54 passing yards combined on his other 12 completions. An offensively punchless Kentucky suffered a 20-14 overtime loss.

Even now, Wilson has a hard time watching video of that game. “It was the type of deal, I was out there not really playing,” he says. “I was just trying to get through it.”

The following week at home against Vandy, Wilson was determined to make amends. Instead, on Kentucky’s second offensive play, he lost a fumble after ripping off a 25-yard run.

That set up a Vandy TD.

On the second play of the ensuing UK offensive series, a Wilson lateral attempt to Bowden also went awry. Vanderbilt recovered that fumble, too.

“The biggest thing I learned in that Vanderbilt game, I remember I took off on one of those runs and I fumbled the ball,” Wilson said. “That was at the beginning of the game. When things happen like that — which they shouldn’t — you just have to get them off your mind. Don’t let them stay on your mind the whole game and affect you.”

Following the two early fumbles in what became a 14-7 slog of a Kentucky victory, Wilson seemed to spend the rest of the Vandy contest playing “not to make mistakes.” He only threw nine passes, completing but three.

Subsequently, Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops “came in after the Vanderbilt game and said, ‘Let (Wilson) know, we are making a change (at quarterback). You are not going to be the guy anymore if you are going to play that way,’” Hinshaw recalled.

The education of a QB

The following week at Missouri, Wilson started but UK played three quarterbacks.

However, it was Wilson in the game at the end to lead an eight-play, 81-yard touchdown drive in the final 1:24 that gave the Cats a 15-14 victory.

“Terry responded in that Missouri game,” Hinshaw says. “He played much better. He competed.”

That Missouri win propelled Kentucky into a meeting with Georgia to decide the 2018 SEC East Division champion. Even as UK fell, 34-17, to the Bulldogs, Wilson completed 23 of 29 passes for 226 yards.

“The Georgia game, I was the most confident,” Wilson says. “I was completing some good passes and doing a little running. I was like, ‘If I can do this against them, I can do it against anybody.’”

For a new quarterback installed at the controls of a veteran team, Wilson had an overall solid showing in 2018. The dual-threat player finished with 547 yards and four touchdowns rushing and threw for 1,889 yards and 11 TDs vs. eight interceptions.

Moving forward, however, more will be needed.

With pass-rushing star Josh Allen now with the Jacksonville Jaguars and with Kentucky’s top six defensive backs from a season ago lost to graduation or injury, the UK offense will have to carry more of the load in 2019.

Now that Benny Snell, Kentucky’s all-time leading career rusher, is a rookie with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Cats are going to need more production from Wilson than they did in 2018.

Kentucky football quarterback Terry Wilson talks to the media after his team’s second scrimmage of fall camp on Saturday, Aug. 17, 2019. The Wildcats open the season on Aug. 31, 2019 against visiting Toledo at Kroger Field.

Wilson worked throughout the spring and summer on enhancing his throwing mechanics. “Little fundamental things, getting me in the right position to throw the ball and be accurate,” he says.

With 13 career UK starts under his belt, Wilson thinks there will be a noticeable difference in 2019 in his decisiveness in the pocket.

“Just recognizing defenses,” Wilson said. “Just noticing what defense it is, seeing it fast, seeing it quick and knowing where I have to go with the football.”

At Kentucky’s media day, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said that last season Wilson missed the check to a “bubble throw 30 times.”

Since those often go to slot receivers and UK’s most dynamic playmaker, junior flanker Bowden, usually lines up in the slot, such misreads were consequential.

“Say we just get half of those reads right,” Gran said, “that’s 15 more touches for your best player.”

Kentucky wide receiver Lynn Bowden said after UK football’s Spring Game on Friday, April 12, 2019, that he and quarterback Terry Wilson have a bond like peanut butter and jelly. Which one is the peanut butter and which one is the jelly?

If Wilson produces the kind of season in 2019 that he seems capable of — and that UK is likely to need him to have — it will be, in part, due to the lessons the quarterback learned after ragged performances against Texas A&M and Vanderbilt last season threatened his hold on the Kentucky starting job.

“Gotta be myself,” Wilson says of the moral he drew from last season’s two-game trial of adversity. “When things aren’t happening your way, you can’t be down on yourself. You’ve got to look for the next play.”

Scouting the Cats

This is the last of nine stories looking at the 2019 Kentucky football team position-by-position.

Quarterbacks outlook

The main man: Last season, his first year after transferring to Kentucky from junior college, Terry Wilson joined UK football icons Babe Parilli and Derrick Ramsey as the only Wildcats’ QBs ever to win 10 games in a season. The 6-foot-3, 208-pound junior from Oklahoma City overcame a midseason rough patch to finish with 1,889 yards passing and 547 rushing yards.

The supporting cast: After Gunnar Hoak grad transferred to Ohio State, Kentucky had no QB on its roster other than Wilson who had ever played in an FBS game. In a turn of good fortune, the Wildcats were able to lure graduate transfer Sawyer Smith from Troy. Last season, the 6-3, 219 pound Smith — who comes to UK with two seasons of remaining eligibility — started the final seven games for Troy. Smith threw for 1,669 yards and 14 touchdowns, and was chosen MVP of Troy’s 42-32 win over Buffalo in the Dollar General Bowl.

Redshirt sophomore Walker Wood, the ex-Lafayette High School scrambler, has battled injuries in his time at Kentucky. With Smith on board, UK will presumably be able to redshirt true freshman Amani Gilmore. A knee injury suffered by true freshman Nic Scalzo ensures he will be redshirted.

Kentucky quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw talks about the addition of Sawyer Smith, a graduate transfer from Troy. Smith is expected to back up returning starter Terry Wilson. UK opens the 2019 season Aug. 31 vs. Toledo.

The outlook: A season ago, Wilson was not asked to win games for a Kentucky offense built around the punishing rushing of star back Benny Snell. With Snell now in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ camp, Kentucky will have to ask substantially more from its QB if it is to succeed in 2019. With a year under his belt, Wilson should be ready to meet that challenge.

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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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