Max Smith has plenty of endorsements as he competes for Kentucky quarterback job

Recruit flew under radar

jsmith3@herald-leader.comNovember 3, 2011 

Arm talent on par with Peyton Manning?

Perhaps more arm strength than quarterbacks like the Oakland Raiders' Kyle Boller?

Those are things that have been said about Kentucky's Max Smith this week by various coaches.

"The sky is the limit for him," said Jim Rose, Smith's high school coach. "Some guys, once they get on the field, they're going to perform. He's one of those guys."

So how did this 6-foot-4, 220-pound quarterback with apparently limitless potential end up a two-star recruit whose only other offer came from Sacramento State?

It's a long story that winds its way through the California valley and somehow makes its way to Kentucky, where the true freshman is in position to perhaps be the starter against Ole Miss on Saturday.

Smith flew under the radar because he played only one full season of high school football as a starting quarterback.

He played for two different schools in different systems before finally landing at Birmingham to play for Rose. There he threw for 2,500 yards and 24 touchdowns.

"He would have had better numbers had our receivers been able to catch the ball," Rose said. "He had so many balls dropped; he could have easily had 3,000, been over 3,500 yards. The good thing was he only threw two interceptions."

A kid transferring from another school and taking the quarterback position his senior year might ruffle feathers under normal circumstances, but not these.

"As soon as he threw the ball, the kids were like, 'That's our quarterback,' " Rose said. "It was a done deal with the kids. The kids accepted him right away because he was a team player.

"A lot of times, quarterbacks tend to think they're more important than everyone else. He's not like that."

Rose, a veteran coach, couldn't say enough about Smith the person.

But Smith the quarterback is just as impressive, he said.

"He's got the best arm I've ever seen and we've had some good quarterbacks here and in the valley. There's been some great quarterbacks come out of here," he said, mentioning NFL players like Boller. "Arm strength-wise, he's as good as anybody."

It's not the first time this week that coaches have talked about Smith's potential.

UK offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said something eerily similar after Smith subbed in for the injured Morgan Newton and went 26-for-33 for 174 yards in the Cats' loss to Mississippi State.

"I'm hesitant to say this, but I will: He's got as much arm talent as anybody I've ever coached as far as throwing the football," said Sanders, who coached Manning at Tennessee.

Sanders expounded on that more this week.

"This may sound crazy, but he's really athletic with his feet," Sanders said when asked what drew UK to a no-name kid from the other side of the country. "A lot of times people equate athletic ability with speed or the ability to jump. He's probably less athletic than me that way. He is very athletic with his feet."

Again Sanders pointed to Manning.

"Peyton always had great feet, great feet in the pocket," he said. "He was always able to move and get himself lined up and throw quickly and that's the thing Max can do."

Smith didn't get this way overnight.

Physically, he has the quintessential quarterback body, and he's a student of the game.

But he also has put in a lot of work, specifically training with Erik Kramer, a former NFL quarterback.

Smith, who has been off-limits to the media this week during the quarterback competition with still-injured Newton, said last year that working with Kramer was key.

"Erik has helped me tremendously," Smith said. "I know a lot of guys might come in and have trouble with fundamentals, but he really helped me with my footwork and making sure I'm reading all coverages. I'm not all there yet, but I've had a good head start working with Erik."

It was that affiliation with Kramer that landed Smith a spot at UK, where he "grayshirted" — enrolling at UK for the spring semester and joining the team for spring practice.

Kramer knew UK wide receivers coach Tee Martin, and he told him about Smith.

Smith is a true freshman, but he got extra time to learn the Kentucky system and playbook.

That extra time could be key if he's called on to be the starter Saturday in a must-win game for UK, which has to win three of its last four games to earn bowl eligibility for a sixth straight year.

'A work in progress'

The physical qualities may be there for Smith, but he's still a freshman, his current coaches cautioned.

After Sanders talked of the "arm talent," he followed it up with: "His presence in the pocket, managing protections, seeing things, that's where he's still a work in progress."

This was evidenced by several big hits Smith took in the loss to the Bulldogs and in his play early in the season.

In mop-up duty against high-caliber opponents LSU and South Carolina, Smith completed just one of eight passes for 9 yards.

Two of his three passes against the Gamecocks were completions to the opposing team.

But he seemed to learn from those mistakes.

"He got a chance to come back and watch the film and see the mistakes he made, see how he can protect himself and how he can make it easier on himself," UK Coach Joker Phillips said.

The veterans around him are aware of Smith's inexperience and try be of assistance.

"You just have to be more aware and try to help him out and be there in case he doesn't get the signal," senior center Matt Smith said. "He's not as experienced as (Newton) is, so you've got to watch after him."

But the center has been impressed with the freshman (who is no relation).

"They've done a great job prepping him and he's done a great job catching on to things as a young quarterback," Matt Smith said.

"He's always real poised in the huddle. When he makes his calls he's always real assertive and lets us know he has confidence."

That confidence has been showing itself this week as Smith has taken all of the first-team practice repetitions with Newton still hobbled.

"He looks good," Phillips said of Smith. "I've never heard him tell anyone what to do because he's always worried about what he's supposed to do, (but) I saw a lot of that today. I'm proud of him and the way he's carrying himself."

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