Quarterbacks make pitch for starting job

More than 50,000 fans were estimated to be at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday to get their first glimpse of the Wildcats' new version of the "Air Raid" offense, and most of the eyes were focused squarely on Kentucky's trio of sophomore quarterbacks.

More than 50,000 fans were estimated to be at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday to get their first glimpse of the Wildcats' new version of the "Air Raid" offense, and most of the eyes were focused squarely on Kentucky's trio of sophomore quarterbacks.

Maxwell Smith, Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles have all been auditioning this spring to be the man under center when the Cats begin the 2013 season. Very few clues have been dropped by the coaching staff regarding who has a leg up, but the scrimmage left a lasting impression on many in attendance.

Whitlow may be the man to beat when fall camp rolls around after going 17-of-28 for 193 yards and two touchdowns with no turnovers. He split his time between the Blue and White squads, leading his unit to three touchdowns and a field goal on six possessions during the game.

By contrast, Smith produced one touchdown and one field goal; Towles one touchdown; and freshman Reese Phillips one touchdown.

"I just tried to come out here and play my best," Whitlow said. "You try to play like you have a chip on your shoulder. Sleep like that, eat like that, so you have to come out and show what you can do."

The elusive Whitlow also showed why he is considered a dual-threat quarterback with 49 yards rushing on seven carries. But that stat is not a reflection of how dangerous he can be running the football as Whitlow was working under a two-hand touch rule for the defense against the quarterbacks.

Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown said Whitlow's performance was the extension of a good overall spring for the Prattville, Ala., native.

"I think he's come a long way as a passer," Brown said. "The balls came out of his hand nicely."

Injuries forced Whitlow into action as a true freshman in 2012. Not surprisingly, he had his ups and downs, finishing with 803 yards passing, three touchdowns and two interceptions while completing 54 percent of his attempts.


Patrick Towles dropped back to pass. (FOX Sports Photo by Jeff Drummond.)
"I think he's learning how to prepare," Brown said. "Getting thrown into the fire does one of two things to you: it either damages you, or you really find out what it takes, and you come back stronger than ever. I think that's what happened with him."

Asked if he felt like he had been counted out of the race by some observers, Whitlow said: "I don't really look into all the blogs and all that stuff. I just study my plays."

Towles, meanwhile, struggled with consistency on Saturday but showed flashes of his potential on his second drive of the day, hitting tight end John Ballis for a 26-yard completion that helped set up a well-thrown fade pass for a TD to Rashad Cunningham.

The former Kentucky "Mr. Football" from Fort Thomas Highlands finished the scrimmage 6-of-14 for 65 yards and a touchdown. But he also threw an interception to Ashely Lowery on the opening drive of the game.

"I was really excited with energy we had," Towles said after the game. "But there were definitely some plays that 50,000 people saw that I definitely need to make and I didn't make."

Maxwell Smith, who was sidelined for most of last season after a severe ankle injury against Western Kentucky, was on the verge a forgettable night before hooking up with Demarco Robinson for a beautiful 47-yard touchdown strike late in the fourth quarter.

The California native finished 11-of-18 for 108 yards and one touchdown, but Brown pointed out that he was victimized by a few drops and probably got less help from his teammates than the other two contenders.

"That's not all on him," Brown added.


Maxwell Smith surveyed the defense. (FOX Sports Photo by Jeff Drumond.)
Asked about where he stood in the quarterback competition, Smith said: "It's pretty strong. It's up to Coach (Stoops). I'm just going to keep working every day. That's what I've got to do - just keep getting better, be a leader, and keep going."

Freshman Reese Phillips, who signed with UK in this year's class but enrolled early in January, hasn't been considered an immediate threat to the more experienced quarterbacks, but he showed Saturday that he may be in the near future.

"I thought the rookie (Phillips) may have played as well as any of them," Brown said of the Signal Mountain (Tenn.) product, who went 10-of-12 for 75 yards and a touchdown. "He came out and really performed well. We've been calling him 'The Pledge.' He did a nice job."

Brown remained hesitant to name a leader for the starting job this season. He said he needed to review the spring game film closer to get a true reflection of how each quarterback played and that, for now, the race looks "even."

"Each of them have shown potential, but nobody's gone out and done it every single day," he said. "And you gotta understand, quarterbacking is difficult when you're only getting a third of the reps. It's a rhythm position, and it's tough for these guys. That's why, when we get into fall camp, we've got to decide what direction we're going and give that guy the majority of the reps."


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