Kentucky should stick with Towles at quarterback in 2015
The Kentucky Wildcats are running out of margin for error.
The Cats are entering Year 3 of the Mark Stoops era, and while no one in the Bluegrass is suffering an anxiety attack over UK’s failure to appear in a bowl game the last two years, it’s imperative the Cats reach the postseason in 2015.
Not only have the other third-year SEC coaches — Arkansas’ Bret Bielema, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn and Tennessee’s Butch Jones — all appeared in a bowl game, they’ve all already won one. Stoops has only won seven total games in his two years at UK. Those other three coaches all won at least seven games last year alone.
Fans and administrators knew the process of rebuilding Kentucky’s program from the ashes of the Joker Phillips era would take time, but reaching the six-win plateau is a major milestone in the rebuilding process that fans are hoping to finally reach in 2015.
Stoops has enhanced Kentucky’s recruiting efforts ten-fold, and he teased fans with five early wins last fall only to drop six straight to end the season 5-7. Fans know a bowl is just on the horizon, and they’ll expect postseason play when the new season begins in September.
Thus, Stoops must deliver this fall. He cannot afford another losing record, no matter how much growth the team shows. It’s time he deliver results in his third year on the job. After all, more than 85 percent of the conference earned bowl berths last year. All he’s really being asked is to move the UK program out of the bottom 15 percent of the conference.
This spring, Stoops and new offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson are allowing returning starting quarterback Patrick Towles and redshirt freshman Drew Barker to alternate practices with the first-team, implying both are in an open competition for the starting job this fall.
But they shouldn’t be. The job should be Towles’ and Towles’ alone.
I understand the desire to give Barker a hearty number of reps this spring to get him up to speed on Dawson’s offense. He is, after all, the only other scholarship quarterback on the roster other than Towles.
And I understand Dawson’s desire to see as much of Barker as he can so he knows what he’s got in both his quarterbacks.
But to give him 50 percent of reps with the first team throughout the entire spring is overdoing it a bit. Kentucky ought to be building off Towles’ growth last season, his first as a starter.
Towles has a big frame, a strong arm and subtle mobility to escape heavy rushes. He has all the tools you’d want in a pocket passer, and he has a year of experience competing against the speed of SEC defenses in the Air Raid offense Kentucky still employs.
The more time Kentucky takes away from Towles on the practice field to give to Barker, a player who may not take a meaningful snap all year, the more UK hurts its chances at winning six games in 2015.
Kentucky’s five prominent 2014 wide receiver signees — Dorian Baker, Blake Bone, Garrett Johnson, Thad Snodgrass and T.V. Williams — could all make enormous strides this fall. But they’ll need Towles playing under center to do so.
This spring should be about developing Towles’ timing with those playmakers and about allowing him to develop a sense of chemistry with the other starters on offense, not about allowing two quarterbacks to compete while the rest of the team struggles to develop a rapport with either guy.
If Kentucky still had time to build, it might be worth exploring the Towles-Barker competition a little further into the spring. But Kentucky doesn’t have that luxury.
Another losing season with more uncertainty at quarterback may not cost Stoops his job, but it would certainly put him on the hot seat. And once a coach is on the hot seat, everything changes. Players play tighter and lose composure. Recruits are uneasy about committing to the program without knowing the coach’s job security. Fan support begins to wane and the culture surrounding the program begins to deteriorate.
For Kentucky to avoid that mess, it must win six games this fall. And in order to hit the ground running this fall, which UK must do with three SEC games scheduled in the month of September alone, it must turn to Towles.
Aside from its three cupcake non-conference games, UK must win three more games against its nine power conference opponents (eight SEC opponents plus Louisville). Two of the more winnable games on the power conference slate are Florida (new coach) and South Carolina (no quarterback), but those games fall in the first three weeks of the season.
To win those games and reach a bowl, UK should rely on experience in the form of Towles, who has faced both aforementioned defenses and can handle the challenges those defenses may present.
Kentucky is going to keep looking at both quarterbacks all spring, but it can really only afford to choose one guy: Towles. Barker is talent, but he’s not ready. This is Towles team. Until he proves he can’t handle that responsibility, there’s no sense changing course now.