Kentucky’s quarterback for the final ten+ games of the 2019 season will be Sawyer Smith. Unlike another successful backup story at Kentucky, the grad transfer from Troy did not have the benefit from spring practice.
Smith’s inexperience in Eddie Gran’s offense was not obvious in his first appearance for the Wildcats. He completed 5-of-9 passes (two of which were thrown away to avoid sacks) for 76 yards and two touchdowns. Each score came from fade routes, to Ahmad Wagner and Lynn Bowden, respectively.
In order to paint the clearest picture of what Smith brings to the table, we must go back to his time as Neal Brown’s signal-caller at Troy.
Before Brown was forced to give the reins of his offense to Smith, the Cantonment, Fl. native was used in spurts as a change of pace on the Trojans’ offense. His ability to make plays with his legs gave a different dynamic to the offense. On the road at Nebraska, he exploded for a 57-yard run out of a read option.
We saw Smith use his legs once against Eastern Michigan, turning a broken play into a five-yard gain that moved the chains. In the Dollar General Bowl, he proved that he can proficiently pull off the pass option of the RPO as well.
Smith does not exclusively use his legs to go north-south. When pressure forces him out of the pocket, he has a knack for extending plays with his legs. Many times running quarterbacks will rely on their legs once the play breaks down, but Smith keeps his eyes downfield to find an open receiver for a first down.
Smith saved his best game for last at Troy. After the Trojans suffered a loss to Appalachian State in the Sun Belt Conference Championship Game, he came out firing in the Dollar General Bowl against Buffalo. On Troy’s third play from scrimmage, Smith let one rip. The ball sailed more than 50 yards in the air before he connected with the open wide receiver for a 60-yard touchdown.
Smith showed some swagger after the score too. He flashed a “horns down” hand sign to his own sideline, an insult typically reserved for Texas that also applied to the Buffalo Bulls.
You can easily measure his arm strength. What you cannot quantify is his experience. After starting for six games, Smith could clearly see the defense. Instead of panicking when Buffalo dialed up a blitz on third down, he stood firm in the pocket and made the Bulls pay with another deep ball that resulted in a touchdown.
Smith operates well in RPO’s and his arm strength will stretch out opposing defenses. Where he struggles at times is his accuracy in the intermediate passing game. Arguably the most difficult part of passing to master, Terry Wilson spent all offseason working on his ability to convert third and long situations. Even though it’s not one of Smith’s strengths, he’s proven he can get the job done.
On that third and long you can see Smith’s eyes shift from one receiver to the next, all while evading pressure in the pocket.
Aside from the Nebraska run, all of clips you’ve seen from Smith were from his best performance of the season. In the 42-32 Dollar General Bowl victory he completed 31-of-44 passing attempts (70.5%) for 320 yards and four touchdowns. He was not always that consistent as Troy’s starter in the final six games of the regular season.
Sawyer Smith is far from perfect. Many mistakes will be made while he’s at the helm. It’s important that all of those mistakes are manageable.
Like he did in 2016 when Stephen Johnson had to replace Drew Barker, Eddie Gran will build the offense around Smith’s strengths. Unlike Johnson, Smith has experience in big-time college football games. Even though those games were in the Sun Belt, it’s an intangible that will pay immediate dividends. Smith has all of the mental and physical tools to make sure Kentucky’s offense does not lose significant momentum after an exceptional start to the season.