Kentucky has its starting quarterback penciled in for the season opener Sept. 2 at Louisville.
The Wildcats announced Monday afternoon that sophomore Maxwell Smith has edged senior Morgan Newton and a pair of freshman signees, Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow, for the starting job to begin the new season.
"We have two quarterbacks that we feel like we can win with," UK head coach Joker Phillips said of Smith and Newton. "They both have won in this league, but… Max Smith, we feel, gives us the best chance to win at this point, and he'll be our starting quarterback versus Louisville."
Asked what he did to win the job, Smith said: "Gotta be savvy. Gotta be able to complete passes, all types of passes, and take what the defense gives me. (Also) being able to read defenses better than I did last year. Just to get my team going and be a leader out there. That's what I really want to be."
Smith also noted that a greater understanding of the Wildcats' playbook put him in a position to emerge as the starter.
"I might have thought I knew the playbook last year, I think I told you guys, but I really know it now," he said.
Newton, meanwhile, took the news in stride. He said it did not come as a big surprise, especially since he has been working to recover from off-season shoulder surgery that knocked him out of spring drills.
The UK staff has been quick to remind that Newton must remain focused and ready to compete each day in practice. In the rugged SEC, the backup is always one play away from being the new starter.
Quipped Newton: "People will start liking me again now that I'm the backup."
A 6-foot-4, 230-pound California native, Smith played in eight games as a grayshirt freshman after Newton was banged up against Mississippi State. He started three of the final four games of the 2011 season before missing the Tennessee finale due to an injury. Along the way, he completed 84 of 153 passes (54.9 percent) for 819 yards and four touchdowns.
Smith earned SEC Freshman of the Week honors after completing 19 of 36 passes for 283 yards and two touchdowns in a 30-10 victory over Ole Miss. He gave a Wildcat offense that had struggled almost the entire season a bit of optimism heading into the final four games, something that carried over into the spring.
"He's really accurate," Phillips said. "That's what he's been throughout this camp. We knew he was pretty accurate in the spring, but he's become really accurate… He's led. He really sees the field real well."
On Saturday, in the Wildcats' final full scrimmage leading up to preparation for the Louisville game, Smith led the offense on a 14-play, 98-yard drive for a touchdown. The staff reviewed film on Sunday night and came to the conclusion that it was time to name Smith the starter. The quarterbacks were informed of the decision Monday morning.
"It was a big enough separation that we felt like we needed to go ahead and announce it today," Phillips said. "If it wasn't, we would have let it go another week."
UK offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said it was simply a matter of Smith moving the offense on a more consistent basis. "Morgan did a lot of good things. It's not like the offense was stagnated by any means when he was in there, but we were just more productive with Max.
"That's what we've said all along: whoever gives us a chance to be more productive and score points will be the guy."
As far as the team was concerned, there appeared to be very little suspense. Senior wide receiver La'Rod King said he was "100 percent confident" that the staff made the right choice. Fellow senior receiver E.J. Fields echoed that sentiment, adding "We're very, very confident about the offense with Max in there. We know we're going to be better than we were last year."
The staff has yet to determine whether Towles, the reigning Kentucky "Mr. Football," or Alabama standout Whitlow will be the No. 3 quarterback on the depth chart.
"We've got a week and a half until the game, so we've got time to decide who the third guy would be," Phillips said. "Also, those guys need a couple more weeks. How do you make a decision on them after only two weeks? That's all they've had. We want to give them a fair chance to continue their competition."
Whoever emerges as No. 3 could possibly get some snaps this season. The other freshman is expected to redshirt.
Smith named Wildcats' starting quarterback
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