Mark Story

The loss of Terry Wilson does not guarantee a lost Kentucky football season

For the longest time, the Kentucky Wildcats enjoyed nothing but good fortune in keeping starting quarterbacks healthy.

Tim Couch never missed a game in his two years (1997 and ‘98) as UK’s starting QB. Jared Lorenzen started for three-and-a-half seasons (2000-03) without missing one start due to injury. Andre Woodson was Kentucky’s quarterback for three seasons (2005-07) and answered the starter’s bell for every game.

Alas, over the past 10 years, UK’s luck with its quarterbacks’ health has taken an unhappy turn.

When Kentucky announced Sunday that Terry Wilson will be sidelined for the remainder of the 2019 season because of a torn patellar tendon in his left knee suffered in Saturday’s 38-17 win over Eastern Michigan, it marked the fifth time since 2009 that injury has prematurely ended the season of UK’s starting quarterback.

“Obviously, very disappointed for Terry Wilson,” UK Coach Mark Stoops said Monday at his weekly news conference. “Greatly appreciate what Terry has done for us, the leadership he has given this team and the way he has played the past year and two games. It’s been a long time since (a quarterback) helped (Kentucky) win 12 out of 15 starts that he had.”

Now, with Troy graduate transfer Sawyer Smith slated to make his first Kentucky start against No. 9 Florida on Saturday night at Kroger Field, the good news for jittery Wildcats fans is this:

In two of those recent seasons in which UK’s starting QB was lost, the Wildcats regrouped and went on to both score major wins and earn bowl bids.

2009: QB by committee

In 2009, Kentucky lost starting quarterback Mike Hartline to a knee injury in the fifth game of the year at South Carolina. After UK lost to the Gamecocks 28-26, it stood 2-3 and had no clear alternative at quarterback.

Ultimately, Rich Brooks and his offensive brain trust went quarterback by committee.

Mike Hartline on cart at South Carolina.JPG
UK quarterback Mike Hartline was carted off the field after injuring his knee early in the third quarter of a 28-26 loss at South Carolina in UK’s fifth game of the 2009 season. Charles Bertram Herald-Leader file photo

They took the redshirt off true freshman Morgan Newton. They played previously little-used veteran Will Fidler. Most astutely, they increased usage of star wideout Randall Cobb — a high school quarterback — from the Wildcat formation.

With a revolving door at QB, Kentucky nevertheless closed its regular season with five wins in seven games. Included were UK’s first victory at Auburn since 1961 and first win at Georgia since 1977.

Even without its starting quarterback, Kentucky advanced to its fourth straight bowl game, falling to Clemson 21-13 in the Music City Bowl.

2016: A folk hero emerges

Just three seasons ago, Kentucky found itself in crisis in the third game of the year against New Mexico State.

At the time, UK stood 0-2 on the year after having blown a 35-10 lead in a 44-35 loss to Southern Mississippi, then absorbing a 45-7 beatdown at Florida.

Against NMSU, UK starting QB Drew Barker came out of the game after one series due to a back injury. Eventually, Barker underwent surgery. He did not play again in 2016.

Drew Barker on cart New Mexico St.JPG
Kentucky quarterback Drew Barker (7) was taken off the field with back pain after the first series of what became UK’s 62-42 win over New Mexico State in 2016. Charles Bertram Herald-Leader file photo

Barker’s backup, Stephen Johnson, was an unheralded junior college transfer who had begun his career at Grambling State.

Making things more challenging, Barker was primarily a pocket passer, Johnson more of a dual threat. That meant Kentucky co-offensive coordinators Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw had to make a substantial, in-season alteration to their offensive plan.

It seemed a recipe for team dysfunction. Instead, Johnson became a UK folk hero by leading the Wildcats to seven wins in their final 10 regular season games.

Included were a last-second victory over Mississippi State; a decisive win at Missouri; and a road upset of No. 11 Louisville in which Johnson outplayed soon-to-be Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson.

Even UK’s 33-18 loss to Georgia Tech in the TaxSlayer Bowl didn’t take much luster from Johnson’s Cinderella story.

2019: What happens now?

Unlike the situation when Hartline was injured in ‘09, there is in Smith a clear No. 2 ready to assume the QB position for Kentucky now.

Unlike the situation when Johnson stepped in for Barker in 2016, UK’s replacement for Wilson has prior FBS starting experience.

Troy went 5-2 last season after Smith replaced the injured Kaleb Barker as the starting quarterback. Smith earned MVP honors in the Dollar General Bowl for his play (320 passing yards, four touchdowns) in a 42-32 win over Buffalo.

“I think that’s a big deal that Sawyer has been through this. So it’s nothing new to him,” Stoops said. “He has a lot of confidence. (The Florida) game or any game won’t be too big to him.”

In 2009 and again in 2016, Kentucky proved that the loss of a starting quarterback does not have to mean a lost year.

UK seems in a better position now to replace its primary QB and save its season than it was in either of those prior years.

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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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