Part one in an eight part series previewing the 2013 football Cats
Mark Stoops is nearing the end of what may be the greatest off-season coaching job in Kentucky football history. In his first six months in the big chair, Stoops has electrified a depressed and divided fan base and has, against all odds, transformed the Kentucky brand into one that is relevant to elite high school talent. But as summer fades into fall, the load gets increasingly heavy. Stoops must now guide a paper-thin roster of Wildcats fresh off a soul-crushing 2-10 debacle of a season through a schedule tabbed by media as the nation’s toughest. If that scenario did not generate enough stress, Stoops also enters fall camp facing a decision of enormous consequence: who is his quarterback?
Though Stoops would certainly prefer to have a definitive starter in place, there is cause for optimism. On a roster in which the use of the term “depth chart” is often an oxymoron, there are three, and perhaps even four, quarterbacks on the roster that Stoops believes have the ability to man the controls of Neal Brown’s Air Raid 2.0 offense. This fact should bring comfort, if not clarity, to Stoops in making his ultimate decision, which is clearly crucial to transferring off-season momentum to on-field production.
Maxwell Smith 6-4, 218 So., Granada Hills, CA
— Kentucky’s most experienced quarterback, Smith has played in 12 career games with 7 starts.
— Was granted a medical redshirt in 2012 after sustaining a season-ending injury in the opening series of Kentucky’s loss to South Carolina.
— In just over three games in 2012, completed 103 passes in 150 attempts for 975 yards and 8 touchdowns.
— For his career, has thrown for nearly 1800 yards and completed 62% of his passes.
— Primary strengths are intelligence (1480 on his SAT) and accuracy, both crucial traits in Neal Brown’s offense.
Jalen Whitlow 6-2, 220 So., Prattville, AL
— Despite modest expectations (only part-time starter at quarterback in high school), started 7 games in 2012 as a true freshman.
— Handicapped by a somewhat toothless offense, still managed to throw for 801 yards and 3 touchdowns and rush for 206 yards and another 3 scores.
— Surprised again in spring drills when he more than held his own with both Smith and Towles.
— Was MVP of the Spring game.
— Like Smith, an intelligent player as evidenced by his inclusion on the SEC Academic Honor Roll.
Patrick Towles 6-5, 225 So., Ft. Thomas, KY
— Arrived at UK in 2012 as a Parade All American and the headliner of his recruiting class.
— A three time state champ at powerful Ft. Thomas Highlands, accumulated over 7000 passing yards and 73 touchdowns as well as 1700 rushing yards and 35 more scores in his high school career.
— Has the prototypical height and arm strength of an NFL quarterback.
— Limited by injury in 2012, played in 5 games, throwing for 233 yards and one touchdown.
Reese Phillips 6-2, 219 Fr., Signal Mountain, TN
— A true freshman who graduated early from Signal Mountain High School to enroll at UK in January.
— Though still likely to redshirt, early enrollment allowed Phillips to participate in spring practice.
— Opened eyes in the Spring Game by completing 10 of his 12 passing attempts for 75 yards and a touchdown.
With three players of relatively similar talent levels in a virtual dead heat, it is difficult to handicap the field. Perhaps the only real clues can be found in the few words that can be pried from a tight-lipped Neal Brown on the subject, and a review of Brown’s history as an offensive coordinator. Brown has stated specifically that the two traits he most covets in a quarterback for his system are quick decision-making and passing accuracy. Implicit in this statement is that he does not put a huge premium on the characteristic that most separates Jalen Whitlow from his competitors: his dynamic running ability. This is further supported by Brown’s coaching history. In his five previous seasons as an offensive coordinator at Troy and Texas Tech, Brown has never had a starting quarterback rush for more than 100 yards in a season. In short, the Air Raid has traditionally favored a pure pocket passer. This certainly does not mean that Whitlow can’t win the job. It simply means that he will have to do so with his arm rather than his legs.
Whoever gets the starting nod will almost assuredly put up impressive numbers. In his half-decade as a coordinator, every Neal Brown offense has averaged at least 33 points per game. (Almost double what the 2012 Cats averaged.) With Brown’s Hal Mumme roots, it should not surprise that this scoring barrage has been triggered by the passing attack. All three of Brown’s Red Raider offenses placed in the top 10 nationally in passing yards per game. So which lucky contestant will get to put that offense to work against the Hilltoppers on August 31st? The guess here is that Smith, with his edge in experience, wins the starting job, Whitlow plays situationally as a backup and Towles and Phillips redshirt. It is clear, however, that any of the four can dramatically alter that forecast over the next month.