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No. 9 FLORIDA at KENTUCKY, 7 p.m., ESPN
Next man up

CRAWFORD | Kentucky QB Sawyer Smith jumps at chance to prove himself in the SEC

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Sawyer Smith Kentucky

Sawyer Smith is congratulated by Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran after coming on in relief of injured QB Terry Wilson in a win over Eastern Michigan.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- It isn’t too often that you ask a college football player a question and get a question in response, but that’s what happened back in August when University of Kentucky transfer quarterback Sawyer Smith was asked about the opportunity to play in the Southeastern Conference after two seasons, including a redshirt year, at Troy.

“Isn’t it awesome?” was Smith’s response.

Absolutely nobody is cheering in the wake of starting quarterback Terry Wilson’s season-ending knee injury in Saturday’s win over Eastern Michigan. Wilson has led Kentucky to 12 wins in his first 15 games, and there’s been only one other UK quarterback that anyone knows of who (may have) done that, and that guy (Vito “Babe” Parelli) played for Bear Bryant.

“The coaches and the players, everybody just feels terrible for Terry,” Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops said. “I could tell just being in the locker room after the game (Saturday) that guys were disappointed and flat and just felt terrible for him ... I’m just proud of the way he was progressing and playing. He wasn’t perfect, but he was much more comfortable, and all the things he worked on in the offseason were coming to fruition. I just feel for him, but I know he’ll bounce back and make a full recovery.”

For Smith, however, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. He was set to start at Troy but jumped at the chance to be a backup in the SEC after graduating in three and a half years. In a conversation before the season, he noted that some guys finish their college eligibility wondering how they’d have played if they got a chance at the big time. In Smith’s case, he won’t have to wonder. His first UK start will be against No. 9-ranked Florida on Saturday at Kroger Field.

“You get to test what you’re made of,” Smith said. “You’re going against, so-called best on best. But football is football. At Troy, we played the Power 5 guys and beat the Power 5 guys, two out of three. We played Clemson when they won the national championship, and it was a six-point game, and we missed two field goals. So football is football. But the SEC? It is a cool thing.”

Smith came in for Wilson in the third quarter Saturday and threw a 54-yard TD pass on his first attempt.

When he came to the sideline, Stoops said he told him, “Pretty good start. One for one.”

But Stoops knows that Florida will be a much tougher situation and that the Gators and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will look to shake things up for Smith early. Florida is off to a quick start defensively, with an NCAA-leading 15 sacks in their first two games.

“They’re just a very disruptive defense,” Stoops said. “Todd Grantham does a remarkable job, very good coach I have a lot of respect for. They have a lot of good players. They have some game wreckers up there ... It starts with getting you into third down, and they do a good job of that, because they’re so physical and press coverage. And then he comes with the exotics ... A big thing for us last year was first-down efficiency ... It’s a big deal against a team like them. You get into third down with a new quarterback, then they are going to go get exotic.”

Smith has been through this before. A former All-State quarterback out of Pensacola, Florida, he started last season as a backup at Troy, but came in after an injury and wound up going 5-2 there as a starter to finish the season.

He had to finish up school, so he didn’t get to UK until just before fall camp started but has picked things up quickly, according to Stoops.

“He’s here for this reason,” Stoops said. “He knew he was coming into a backup role but that this could happen. He’s been through it. He’s had to step in before at Troy ... He picks things up. He’s been around ball, obviously Neal (Franklin) was coaching him. He’s a smart kid. Graduated in 3 ½ years. He just needs some time with the ones.”

He’s not likely to command the same respect in the run-pass-option game, but he’s an accurate passer and can throw it downfield with accuracy.

Stoops said it won’t change the Kentucky playbook dramatically but that the play calling will be tailored to Smith’s strengths.

It helps, he added, that Smith had immediate success when he came into Saturday’s game. But he said Kentucky’s players already had confidence in him.

“Everybody feels for Terry. We’re going to miss him,” Stoops said. “But I’m excited for Sawyer getting an opportunity ... Sawyer's been through this. Sawyer's played a lot. He's had to step in. He stepped in this past week and played very good. So we're excited about him, and we're confident in him..”

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