Mark Story

With Terry Wilson out for year, can Sawyer Smith save Kentucky’s football season?

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Almost every scenario for how Mark Stoops and the 2019 Kentucky Wildcats could produce a successful encore to last year’s 10-3 breakthrough centered on an improved Terry Wilson at quarterback.

Now that a torn patellar tendon in his left knee suffered in Saturday night’s 38-17 win over Eastern Michigan has ended Wilson’s 2019 season after two games, the prevailing question for Kentucky football is simple:

Is Troy graduate transfer Sawyer Smith good enough to allow UK to save its season? The first challenge for Kentucky’s new starting quarterback will be Saturday’s SEC showdown with No. 9 Florida.

“We’re going to play to win, no matter who is playing (quarterback). Everybody better get that straight right now,” Stoops said after Saturday night’s game.

Wilson was injured at the end of a 19-yard run in the third quarter. EMU defensive end Turan Rush pulled Wilson down from behind and was flagged for an illegal horse-collar tackle.

Kentucky backup quarterback Sawyer Smith (12) talked with coaches in the booth during the second half Saturday night. Jonathan Palmer

“From my angle … (Wilson’s) knee twisted up weird,” Kentucky running back AJ Rose said. “It was heartbreaking. Devastating.”

As the Kroger Field crowd of 55,240 fell silent, Wilson lay prone on the field for several minutes, then was helped onto a cart with what appeared to be a support brace on his left knee.

Enter Smith.

After UK’s 2018 backup Gunnar Hoak — and don’t you wonder what he’s thinking now — decided to use the graduate transfer rule to move to Ohio State this past spring, Kentucky found itself with no QB on its roster other than Wilson who had ever appeared in a college football game.

Turning to the college quarterback “waiver wire” that is the graduate transfer market, UK was wildly fortunate to land Smith. “They asked me to come here and I said yes,” Smith said.

Sawyer Smith threw a 54-yard touchdown pass to Ahmad Wagner on his first attempt as a Kentucky Wildcat. Alex Slitz

A season ago, the 6-foot-3, 219-pound Smith began the year as Troy’s backup QB. However, an injury to starter Kaleb Barker during a win over Georgia State thrust Smith, a Cantonment, Fla., product into the starting role for then-Troy head man Neal Brown.

Smith went on to start the season’s final seven games, going 5-2 as the Trojans’ starter. His best moment was his last at Troy, as Smith threw for 320 yards and four touchdowns in a 42-32 come-from-behind victory over Buffalo in the Dollar General Bowl. He was named MVP of the bowl.

Now, Kentucky will bank on the experience Smith gained last season.

“That was huge, that he had played in games (before),” UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said of Smith. “When we got him, we thought (Smith’s experience) was really good.”

When Smith suddenly found himself playing a leading role for Kentucky Saturday night, he had obviously been in that spot before. He even had a prepared pep talk he was going to give when he entered the Wildcats huddle.

“I was going to say, ‘Ya’ll believe in me, and I believe in you. Let’s go,’” Smith said. “But (UK center) Drake (Jackson) and those older linemen, and Lynn (Bowden) and those running backs all kind of said that for me.”

With Smith initially at the controls, UK ran the ball four straight times.

On the fifth play, Smith threw his first Kentucky pass.

It went for a 54-yard touchdown to Ahmad Wagner.

In a nice bit of symmetry, Smith’s first career pass at Troy went for a 47-yard TD to Hiram Velez in a 57-17 win over Austin Peay in 2016.

The QB ended his first UK playing action 5-of-9 passing for 76 yards and two TDs, the second coming on a 2-yard throw to Bowden.

So what now for Kentucky?

Gran said his fear entering the season was that he would need two different offensive game plans for Wilson and Smith because the newcomer would likely not have full command of the Kentucky playbook.

Instead, by the time this season began, “we didn’t think we had to (have different game plans) going into game one,” Gran said. “That’s the best thing I’ve seen.”

According to reputation, Smith has a strong arm and his best throw is the deep ball. He is considered a mobile QB, not a statue in the pocket, but is not the dynamic running threat Wilson can be.

With Smith, Kentucky has a more game-seasoned QB than it would have had if Hoak — who has never started a college game — had stayed as the Wildcats’ backup.

Still, as valuable as Smith’s prior experience is, he will now be facing a steady diet of defenses built with “SEC speed, strength and length.”

“I came here to fill the backup position,” Smith said. “This is what I kind of signed up for, got recruited for. I think everybody who grows up in this region of the country wants to play in the SEC.”

Kentucky entered 2019 determined to produce a positive follow up to its 10-3 season of a year ago even though it shed ample star power from that team.

Now, UK will try to prove it has built a good program, not just one good team, with a QB who was playing in the Sun Belt Conference last season.

“We’re sad for Terry and it stinks,” Stoops said, “but, believe me, we’re going back to work with the intent to win a football game next week.”

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.