Handicapping Kentucky's starting quarterback competition
There are four players competing to be Kentucky’s starting quarterback when it opens the 2014 season on August 30, and less than a week into training camp the race appears to be wide-open.
The Wildcats have moved on from Jalen Whitlow, who took the majority of the team’s snaps at quarterback in 2013, and are weighing their options in junior Maxwell Smith, redshirt sophomore Patrick Towles, redshirt freshman Reese Phillips and highly touted true freshman Drew Barker, one of the gems from UK’s 2014 recruiting class.
Although the race remains a dead heat, one thing is certain: offensive coordinator Neal Brown is looking for a more traditional passer to be his quarterback this season.
Whitlow proved he is a tremendous athlete during his two seasons in Kentucky, but transferred to Eastern Illinois after the conclusion of last season, likely because he saw he was not in Brown’s plans regarding the future of UK’s offense.
It appears Brown, who returned Hal Mumme’s Air Raid offense to the Bluegrass prior to last season, is looking for a strong pocket passer to lead the offense in 2014. Whitlow, a shifty, dual-threat quarterback who experienced more success running with the ball than throwing it last season, did not fit the bill.
However, Smith, Towles, Phillips and Barker all possess the build and the skill-set to run the Air Raid. A compelling argument can be made for each signal caller to be the team’s opening day starter this season:
Patrick Towles, “The Prototype”: On paper, Towles is everything the Cats are looking for in a quarterback for the Air Raid. He has a big frame and a strong arm and can make most throws on the field. The 6-foot-5, 238-pound quarterback gained some live game experience during his freshman season in 2012, and benefited from a redshirt season in 2013 to watch and learn Brown’s offense from the sidelines.
Towles was listed as the No. 1 quarterback on head coach Mark Stoops’ first depth chart of the summer, just as he was for Kentucky’s Blue & White scrimmage back in April. The Ft. Thomas, Ky. native admitted to the Courier-Journal that starting under center for the Wildcats has been his dream since childhood, and it appears he will be given every opportunity to make that dream a reality this month.
Maxwell Smith, “The Experience”: The 6-foot-4, 238-pound junior has thrown for more than 3,000 yards in his career at UK, which spans 21 games over the last three seasons. He has the far and away the most live game experience of the four quarterbacks competing for the job, especially against SEC competition, which could give him an edge should none of the other signal callers stand out this month.
Smith has shown he has the accuracy to make his progressions from the pocket and deliver the ball to the right spot on time, which is critical in a pass-happy offense often featuring three-or-more options on any one play. But he has also had trouble staying healthy throughout his college career, failing to play in more than nine games in any one season (he regained a year of eligibility by qualifying for a medical redshirt after only playing in parts of four games during the 2012 season). He is still working his way back from offseason shoulder surgery on his throwing shoulder, which will not only cost him reps in practice but will greatly reduce his arm strength compared to his competitors. A tired arm in a pass-heavy offense is not exactly a recipe for success, which could haunt Smith in the end.
Reese Phillips, “The Wildcard”: Phillips hasn’t done much to stand out from the crowd of quarterbacks yet this summer, which could be as good as it is bad for the Signal Mountain, Tenn. native.
The 6-foot-2 redshirt freshman has no game experience at the college level, but in an interview prior to training camp Brown told the Courier-Journal he thought Phillips “was the most consistent on an every-day basis” among the four quarterbacks. Brown did add that Towles had played better in live scrimmages and that true freshman Drew Barker was “right on their heels” despite one fewer year in the Air Raid, but in a crowded field of competitors playing the position consistently and avoiding major mistakes or setbacks could be what it takes to eventually win the job.
Drew Barker, “The Future”: Barker is perhaps the program’s most recognizable recruit in the Stoops era, and for good reason. The four-star recruit not only brings potential talent to the quarterback position that UK hasn’t possessed since Andre Woodson, but he has spearheaded a campaign to bring other top recruits to Lexington to join in a new, budding chapter of Wildcat football. It became apparent right away that, like Towles, the Burlington, Ky., native cares deeply about the University of Kentucky and wants to lead its emergence into top-level college football rather than play at an already established program elsewhere.
Whether Barker will be ready to lead UK’s offense as a true freshman remains to be seen, but because of his impact on the program before the first game of his first season, the decision may involve more than just football. Barker is becoming the face of the program, and the sooner he is named “the guy” by Stoops and Brown, the sooner Kentucky can say its “Drew Barker era” has begun. This could go a long way in future recruiting, and perhaps there is more to be learned through on-field struggles than can be learned with a clipboard on the sideline during a redshirt campaign.
If Kentucky’s first game were today it seems Towles would be the guy to start under center. But the season does not anytime soon, and a lot can change between now and August 30. Each of the four quarterbacks will be given an opportunity to show why he is the guy to lead the offense in 2014.
The times are changing in Lexington, and Stoops and company have four solid choices as to who will lead the new era of Kentucky football.