Mark Story

To salvage its football season, Kentucky must solve a tricky quarterback quandary

As of Monday, Mark Stoops says Kentucky’s quarterback plan going into Saturday’s game with Arkansas is to stick with Sawyer Smith.

At his weekly news conference at Kroger Field, Stoops said the physically beaten up Smith had taken UK’s bye week as a convalescence period.

“He needed that,” Stoops said. “And the word I got from our trainer here this morning was that he feels significantly better. So (Smith starting) will be the plan. We’ll see.”

If Kentucky (2-3, 0-3 SEC, and loser of three straight) is going to salvage its season, it has to get better quarterback play than Smith — battling shoulder and wrist injuries — has provided the past two games.

A healthy Smith would be the best option to provide that.

The question is how long it will take to get the graduate transfer from Troy well enough to play like he was against Florida — when he finished 23-of-35 passing for 267 yards and two touchdowns — before he injured his wrist.

The following week at Mississippi State, Smith added an apparent shoulder injury to his wrist issue. He has never “looked right” since. Smith went 15-of-42 passing in a 28-13 defeat at Mississippi State, followed by an 11-of-32 showing in a 24-7 loss at South Carolina.

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Kentucky quarterback Sawyer Smith is 26-of-74 passing over UK’s past two games, losses at Mississippi State and South Carolina. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

Given all Smith has been through since he replaced the injured Terry Wilson (torn patellar tendon) as UK’s starting QB, I asked Stoops how the redshirt junior’s psyche has held up.

“He’s holding up just fine. He’s a resilient young man,” Stoops said. “Really important for him to do the best he can and to help his team. Obviously, ... we will monitor him very, very closely (physically) to make sure we don’t put him in harm’s way.

“It’s a long season and we need him back, and we need him back healthy and playing like he did early on, like he did in the Florida game. And he was very impressive, (so) we got to just make sure he’s able to physically do that.”

As badly as Kentucky needs to beat Arkansas (2-3, 0-2 SEC, loser of 13 straight SEC games) Saturday night, it should not use Smith unless he is reasonably close to 100 percent physically.

Even if UK lost to the Razorbacks and then fell at No. 3 Georgia the following week, the Cats would still have five games left — Missouri, Tennessee, at Vanderbilt, Tennessee at Martin and Louisville.

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At 2-5, UK would need to win four of its final five to become bowl-eligible. Bringing a fully healthy Smith back starting with the Missouri game might be Kentucky’s best bet to gain the four victories needed to go to a fourth straight bowl game.

If Smith can’t go against Arkansas, speculation has focused on the possibility of UK using wide receiver Lynn Bowden at QB.

Playing “a wide receiver at quarterback” has been a significant part of the Kentucky football experience in the 21st century.

Late in the 2008 season, Randall Cobb moved from wide receiver to quarterback and got the win that, ultimately, sent the Cats to the Liberty Bowl.

Cobb’s move was necessitated by season-ending injuries to playmakers Derrick Locke and Dicky Lyons Jr. Subsequently, UK needed someone at quarterback who could generate offense instead of a ball distributor like that season’s previous starter, Mike Hartline.

Randall Cobb vs MSU.JPG
In his first start as Kentucky quarterback as a true freshman in 2008, Randall Cobb scored on this touchdown run while leading the Wildcats to a 14-13 victory at Mississippi State. David Perry Herald-Leader file photo

In his first QB start, Cobb threw for a touchdown and ran for a score and led Kentucky to a 14-13 win at Mississippi State that made the Wildcats bowl-eligible.

However, that was the only game Cobb won at QB. In close home losses to Georgia (42-38) and Vanderbilt (31-24), he threw late interceptions that snuffed out Kentucky rallies.

Moral: The longer a team is forced to use a wide receiver at quarterback, the greater the likelihood it goes bad.

In 2011, UK produced one of the epic victories in school history with another wide receiver playing quarterback.

Due to injuries, Kentucky had no scholarship QB healthy enough to play in its regular-season finale against Tennessee.

The Wildcats caught Derek Dooley’s Volunteers off guard by starting wideout Matt Roark at QB. UK ran the read option from the pistol formation the entire game.

Matt Roark vs. Tennessee
Kentucky wide receiver-turned-quarterback Matt Roark (3) ran for 124 yards and directed the Wildcats to a streak-busting 10-7 win over Tennessee in the 2011 season finale.

UK did not trust Roark to throw (4-of-6 passing for 15 yards) but he ran for 124 yards on 24 carries and directed Kentucky to a 10-7 victory that finally silenced “Rocky Top” after 26 straight UK losses to UT.

Moral: Catching an opponent by surprise is the greatest chance of success when playing a wide receiver at quarterback.

As entertaining as the idea of Bowden playing quarterback for the 2019 Wildcats is, Kentucky’s best chance for saving its season depends on getting a healthy Sawyer Smith back.

The challenge for Stoops is figuring out the optimal timing to make that happen while there is still enough season left to save.

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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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