How should Terry Wilson's Kentucky football career be remembered? 'He always battled back'

Jon Hale
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON – The Mount Rushmore of Kentucky football quarterbacks is clear.

Babe Parilli was a two-time first-team All-American and ran the Kentucky offense for the best season in program history. Tim Couch turned his record-setting UK career into the No. 1 pick in the 1999 NFL draft. Jared Lorenzen then broke most of Couch’s career records after taking over the job two years later. Andre Woodson led Kentucky to two bowl games and finished his career second on the school’s all-time passing yards list.

None of the four UK legendary quarterbacks has wins over the program’s two biggest rivals (Tennessee and Louisville) as well as a victory at Florida on his resume though.

Terry Wilson does, and yet when Wilson takes the field for likely the final time in Lexington on Saturday against South Carolina, many Kentucky fans watching the game will do so wishing someone else was playing quarterback.

The game could mark the end to one of the more polarizing runs for a quarterback in program history.

“He knows when he’s been inconsistent, but he’s always battled back and just fought,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said of Wilson this week. “Won a lot of games for us. You go back and you look, he really has. Guy has been awesome. … The kid battles back. He should be known for a guy that won a bunch of big games here, and he loves Kentucky.”

In 23 games as Kentucky’s starting quarterback, Wilson has completed 65.1% of his passes. Only two UK quarterbacks with at least 300 completions in their career have a better completion percentage, but Wilson has thrown for more than 200 yards in a game just five times. Wilson needs just three yards to break into the program’s top-10 list for career total offense, but he would still rank behind Mark Stoops era quarterbacks Patrick Towles and Stephen Johnson in that category.

More:Why Kentucky football's bowl outlook remains uncertain heading into final game

Wilson’s Kentucky legacy has largely been built around winning.

In his first year after transferring to UK from a junior college, Wilson was the quarterback for the Wildcats’ first 10-win season since 1977. One of his best individual performances came in the 2018 win at Florida, which snapped a 31-game losing streak in the series.

Wilson was stellar again in the blowout of archrival Louisville in the 2018 regular season finale and did just enough to help Kentucky to a New Year’s Day bowl win over Penn State to cap the season.

Stoops, Gran and Wilson predicted the Oklahoma native, who started his college career at Oregon, was in store for a major breakout in his second season at Kentucky in 2019, but he tore the patellar tendon in his left knee in the second game and missed the rest of the season. By the time he returned to the field, the COVID-19 pandemic had altered the landscape of college football, pushing the Southeastern Conference to a 10-game schedule with no nonconference games.

Wilson’s explosive running ability was not affected by the injury — as evidenced by his 129 rushing yards and three touchdowns in the overtime loss to Ole Miss — but the projected strides in the passing game never materialized. Wilson has averaged just 104 passing yards per game this season. He has not thrown for more than 120 yards in a game since Week 2, but he helped lead Kentucky to its first win at Tennessee since 1984 in October.

Read this:What Mark Stoops does with Kentucky football offense is final question in difficult season

As Kentucky’s offense has stagnated, even some of Wilson’s most ardent supporters have advocated for Stoops to play backup quarterbacks Joey Gatewood and Beau Allen in order to prepare for the future.

In interviews, Wilson has downplayed any tension resulting from fans' calls for him to be benched, but some frustration appears to be boiling over in recent weeks. After Saturday’s loss to Florida, Wilson wrote, “been holding my tongue for a min now … don’t think it’s sweet” on his Instagram story.

Wilson, who met with the media every Tuesday during the season before the pandemic moved all news conferences to Zoom, has not been made available for interviews since the Nov. 14 win over Vanderbilt.

“There is frustration at times at every one of our positions, and at quarterback, you have a bull’s-eye on you,” Stoops said this week. “All eyes are on the quarterback each and every down, and I think he has handled that very well and I appreciate that from him.”

Frustration over Wilson’s performance cannot be limited to fans alone.

Twice during Wilson's run as starter Stoops has publicly opened the job for competition, including once during the historic 2018 season after Wilson threw for just 18 yards in a win over Vanderbilt. Stoops listed Gatewood alongside Wilson at the top of UK’s quarterback depth chart after the loss at Missouri earlier this season, but Wilson did not play in the next game against Georgia due to a wrist injury.

Gatewood fared little better than Wilson had while making his first career start against the Bulldogs, and Wilson regained his starting job after UK’s bye week.

“It gets frustrating at times because you know what you want to do, and you know it sometimes doesn’t go right,” senior wide receiver Josh Ali said of Wilson. “(Wilson) is strong. You know every week he comes in and he makes changes to the mistakes he had previous weeks."

Wilson could return to Kentucky next season since the NCAA granted every fall sports athlete an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic, but neither Stoops or Gran suggested that was a possibility when asked about Wilson’s legacy this week.

News:Kentucky cornerback Kelvin Joseph opts out of rest of season to prepare for NFL draft

Kentucky’s postseason outlook remains uncertain as well. Even if Kentucky is offered a bowl bid and accepts, some seniors are expected to decide not to play in the game.

For those reasons, Saturday might be Wilson’s last game in a Kentucky jersey. If so, it will mark an end of a UK career that was as unforgettable as it was frustrating.

“I think (his legacy) should be that he did everything he could for this program,” Stoops said. “He is a young man that helped us win 10 games, there is no taking that away from him. … I think he is a guy that laid it all out on the line for his team each and every week. None of us are perfect, and that is a hard position to play. He came back from a very serious injury and he gave it everything he had. I greatly appreciate that.”

Email Jon Hale at; Follow him on Twitter at @JonHale_CJ