Entering the 2018 Kentucky football season, the Cats had one big question mark: quarterback.
Mark Stoops had an elite pass rusher, a secondary filled with three and four-year starters, a massive offensive line and a running back proclaiming himself as the best in the SEC. To ensure it was a successful season, Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw needed steady quarterback play. Terry Wilson answered the call, completing 67.2 percent of his passes (second-best in school history) to help lead Kentucky to its first ten-win season in 41 years. Even so, Wilson still has his detractors.
“I, I, I just don’t get it when people talk about Terry. Dude, he won ten games. He went to Florida and won,” said the man who recruited Wilson to UK, Vince Marrow. “Terry was really like a true freshman last year. I know when I went and recruited Terry, I know what other coaches were sitting in those stands — Texas, Nebraska, Florida. Tom Herman wanted him real bad. Scott Frost wanted him real bad. I think the kid’s going to make the biggest jump. I think Darin Hinshaw is transitioning for a big year this year.”
Even though there are plenty of positives on his résumé, Wilson will be the first to point out his shortcomings.
“A year ago, my eyes were super-wide. Now I’m just calm, relaxed,” Wilson said. “I feel like that’s my personality. Now that I have a season under my belt, it’s going to be just like that on the field, just more dynamic.”
Former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy vividly remembers his first wide-eyed start against Bud Foster’s Virginia Tech defense. He was seeing ghosts, flinching at potential blitzes before every snap. He started the game 2-for-10 with an interception before ultimately leading Alabama to a victory. Fast forward to the following season and McElroy was a completely different quarterback.
“I think as a second year player you learn how to take it in stride a little bit better. Your comfort level within the offense probably grows significantly. And over the course of a 13, 14, 15-game season, you’re going to see just about everything that you’re likely to see,” he told KSR at SEC Media Days.
“I think once you’ve seen it once, you can be spooked; probably not going to be spooked the second time. I just remember feeling so much more comfortable the second year. I was such a better player, it wasn’t even close. I was more accurate. I was more decisive. I had better chemistry with my wide receivers. I was more willing to get to the line of scrimmage and adjust things on the fly. It was second-nature, as opposed to the first year, you can talk yourself into some things that aren’t necessarily happening.”
McElroy believes Wilson is prepared to take a significant step forward after successfully treading water as a first-year starter.
“Terry Wilson, from year one to year two you just get so much more comfortable. You see things faster, you can confidently throw it in windows you maybe didn’t trust yourself the year before and they’re going to need him. He needs to step up big time because he has the potential, he has the ability. It’s just a matter of actually going out there and doing it with a different supporting cast.”
What McElroy described as a”night and day” difference as a second-year starter is exactly what Wilson believes he improved the most over the offseason. Coincidence? I think not.
“Just recognizing defenses, noticing what defense it is, seeing it fast, seeing it quick and knowing where I got to go with the football,” Wilson said at UK Media Day.
At Texas A&M, Terry was indecisive. He had the look of an over-prepared Greg McElroy. As a result, he took too much time and too many sacks. Wilson was sacked 28 times in 2018, ranked 68th in the nation and tenth in the SEC. Some of those can be attributed to the offensive line, but many fall on Wilson’s shoulders.
“It took me a minute last year to get comfortable,” Wilson said. “If you don’t know the blitz, you’re going to get hit in the mouth. You just gotta make sure you know where everything’s coming from.”
While Wilson’s football IQ grew in the film room, he didn’t take any time off in the weight room.
“If you didn’t know Terry when he walked in, you’d think he’s an outside backer, maybe a Will linebacker or a big, SEC-type receiver,” said Marrow. “I mean, he looks good and the boy can run.”
Wilson’s rushing stats slipped after he suffered some minor injuries against Mississippi State. The extra muscle should help him weather the contact this fall. Confident that part of the game will take care of itself, Wilson spent the entire offseason breaking down his throwing mechanics. The months and months of work should put bad habits to rest for good.
“The whole spring we were working on fundamentals and stuff like that; trying to fix the little things that was hurting during the season,” said Wilson. “Going through that, fixing that everyday through spring, doing it own my own on the weekend, going through the summer and doing it my own with the quarterbacks, doing it in 7-on-7, it just kind of became natural. Those little fundamental things are getting me in the right position to throw the ball and be accurate. I took a huge stride in that.”
Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran saw the improvements this spring manifested in his ability to connect more consistently on deep balls. Still, it’s an ongoing process. The primary focus on the passing game in the early preseason is making routine passes look routine.
“He has worked awfully hard. I think you saw the improvement in the spring at throwing the deep ball,” Gran said.
“We’ve got to be great at the little things. Last year we missed just throwing the ball, we missed a bubble throw 30 times. You’re talking about your slot receivers, Lynn being that most of the time, where he could have thrown that out there. Say just we get half of them right there, that’s 15 more touches for your best player. He’s going to improve on those things in our RPO game.”
Terry Wilson has all of the tools to be an exceptional quarterback at the University of Kentucky. Thrown directly into the fire, Wilson did not flinch under the bright lights at Florida in just his second college football game. As SEC defenses threw more his way, he learned countless lessons as a first-year starter. Those lessons transformed Terry Wilson into a confident quarterback that’s prepared to keep the Cats on a winning path in 2019.
“I think what he’s begun with his technique, fundamentals over the offseason, I don’t think there’s any question he’s going to be a better football player,” said Gran.