Fall camp officially begins this weekend and we are just a few weeks away from toe meeting leather for the 2019 Kentucky football season. Fresh off a 10-win season and Citrus Bowl victory, expectations are high for the program entering the fall.
The Wildcats were able to have that historic year despite not needing much from their quarterback. Last season offensive coordinator Eddie Gran asked Terry Wilson to manage the game and that is exactly what he did. Entering his junior season, the program will need to see the former junior college transfer become a playmaker.
Much like we did last season, here at KSR we will be breaking down each position group and addressing just where Kentucky stands entering the season. We start off with the most important position in the sport and this year the Wildcats are banking on a huge bump from their QB1.
Over two decades ago, UK athletic director C.M. Newton hired a Division II coach by the name of Hal Mumme and with him he brought an offensive coordinator by the name of Mike Leach. That duo installed their Air Raid offense at the FBS level and now we’re seeing the base plays from that scheme being utilized throughout the National Football League. As soon as they arrived, Kentucky went on a remarkable run with solid quarterback play.
It helped that consensus five-star recruit Tim Couch was on the inherited roster, but the new coaching staff did a great job turning the Hyden, Kentucky native into a national star. In two years under Mumme and Leach, Couch threw for 8,159 yards and 73 touchdowns. The prototypical pocket passer averaged 7.4 yards per attempt on an astounding 50 passes per game. He was a Heisman finalist in 1998 and would go on to become the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft. Kentucky had something cooking behind center.
Dusty Bonner tossed for over 3,200 yards and 26 touchdowns help guiding UK to a Music City Bowl appearance the next season. After that, redshirt freshman Jared Lorenzen stepped in and would be the program’s starter for the next four years. Despite winning just 15 games in that stretch, Lorenzen became the school’s all-time leader in passing yards (10,354), accounted for 90 touchdowns, and played for three different head coaches. We miss you, 22.
Since Lorenzen’s departure, it has been a rocky road.
Expectations were super high for Shane Boyd coming out of Lexington Henry Clay High School, but the baseball prodigy and super athlete struggled in college averaging just 5.2 yards per pass attempt in his career. Andre’ Woodson followed him and after two sluggish years, the North Hardin alum became a star in 2006 and 2007. The last two seasons Woodson put together the best quarterback play Kentucky had gotten since Tim Couch left with the Wildcats collecting 16 wins. In those two years, Woodson passed for over 7,000 yards, 71 touchdowns, and completed over 63 percent of his attempts. After a bump in the road, Kentucky had established a strong record of producing quarterbacks.
Then the next decade happened.
During that mentioned run, UK was able to hit and develop some homegrown talent but those weren’t undervalued recruits. All three quarterbacks (Couch, Lorenzen, Woodson) had a ton of suitors out of high school and Kentucky was able to get them on campus. Since then, UK has had some misses on a few blue-chip prospects and that’s a big reason why we’ve seen this offense struggle at times. Entering year seven under Mark Stoops, Kentucky will be on their fifth starting quarterback and have a highly touted in-state senior committed in the class of 2020. The hope is that UK is now set to go on a run where they can consistently get good quarterback play.
The program appears to feel good about their chances to have that this fall.
The Quarterback Room
After staring all 13 games and recording 10 wins in his first season over from junior college, everyone around the program is excited to see Terry Wilson take the next step. The man they call Terry Touchdown was only responsible 15 scores last season. Due to a dominant defense and an All-American running back, the Wildcats kept the training wheels on Wilson most of last season and it’s hard to argue against it considering the result. Now it’s time to trust your quarterback and turn him loose.
Terry Wilson has proven to be an excellent runner (726 non-sack yards on 6.8 yards per attempt) with some solid intermediate accuracy (67.2 percent completion percentage). However, most of those passes did not travel very far (10.5 yards per completion) and Wilson took far too many sacks (9.5 percent sack rate ranked last in the SEC). Entering year two, the junior quarterback must improve his pocket mobility/awareness in addition to making throws vertically down the field. With some experience and success under his belt he seems capable of making the jump.
With the transfers of Danny Clark and Gunnar Hoak following the season, it became imperative for Kentucky to address its short-term quarterback depth immediately. After making a play for Penn State transfer Tommy Stevens, the Wildcats landed Troy transfer Sawyer Smith and the grad transfer has two years of eligibility remaining with some starts and big wins under his belt. That’s a good place to land.
In the class of 2019, Kentucky landed two quarterbacks who were each considered low three-star prospects. Nik Scalzo pledged to UK back in May and the South Florida native led his Cardinal Gibbons team to a state title and has some Johnny Manziel to his game despite likely not being six-foot tall. Amani Gilmore also led his Amite High School team to a state title after not playing his junior season due to transfer rules in Louisiana. The lefty plans to play baseball in college and possesses the dual-threat ability that Kentucky has had with Stephen Johnson and Terry Wilson. The two rooks are long-term prospects, but they have some tools.
Walker Wood returns for his redshirt sophomore season and the Lexington native has yet to see any game action at the college level. The dual-threat quarterback has battled injuries throughout his career and figures to challenge Sawyer Smith and the two rookies for the QB2 spot.
After having one of the best defenses in college football combined with a ground-and-pound offense, things figure to change for the Wildcats in 2019. To take advantage of their offensive personnel, UK will need to turn Terry Wilson loose and let him rip it. Expect an offense that uses a little more tempo and tries to get out on the edge to take advantage of some of its speed at the skill positions.
Despite being just a game manager to this point, Wilson has the ability to become a true playmaker if he can get some of the mental parts of the game in check. However, an injury risk is always a concern when dealing with a true dual-threat signal caller and that is exactly what Wilson is. Landing Sawyer Smith was a big late recruiting win.
The Florida native has starts under his belt, won games for a conference title contender, and played in games with stakes at Troy. Smith fits what Kentucky likes to do on offense and his biggest strength is throwing the deep ball. On the first episode of 11 Personnel, we went into detail of his importance and explain how his game is similar to Stephen Johnson’s.
After those two, the Wildcats have three other scholarship quarterbacks for position coach Darin Hinshaw to use at his disposal. There’s plenty of development to be done, but the Wildcats return a good chunk of experience and that is always a good thing. Now they just need Terry Wilson to make that year two leap.