UK football notebook: Quarterback competition making whole team stronger

Herald-Leader Staff WriterJuly 28, 2012 

Quarterbacks 11-Maxwell Smith and 12-Morgan Newton talked before a morning UK football scrimmage at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, April 07, 2012. Charles Bertram | Staff

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At a fan event this week, Kentucky's offensive coordinator told the Blue backers that he's forwarding all tough questions, like who is going to be the Cats' quarterback this season, to head coach Joker Phillips.

From everything everyone, including Phillips, is saying behind the scenes, it appears that question is far from being answered.

Sophomore Maxwell Smith is the frontrunner, having practiced with the first team in the spring while senior Morgan Newton was out rehabbing his surgically repaired shoulder, but offensive coordinator Randy Sanders told the Herald-Leader this summer that he expects it to be "a competitive situation."

Sanders did note how difficult it is for a quarterback to go six months without throwing a ball as Newton did. "Not only did (Newton) miss spring practice and all the fundamental work, he didn't get to throw a ball. There's a lot of catching up to do from that standpoint."

The offensive coordinator seemed pleased with where Smith ended the spring season.

"Max probably has a leg up because not only did Morgan miss spring practice, he missed all the practices the last four games of the season," Sanders said. "So Max is the one who's been able to work and do."

Two people that know the quarterbacks and their tendencies better than anyone other than their coaches, veteran offensive linemen Matt Smith and Larry Warford, said recently that they don't think a quarterback competition will be bad for UK when fall camp starts this week.

"We're all teammates, all family," Warford said recently. "We sweat together, work together, bleed together.

"Other people make such a big deal, call it a controversy. It isn't really true. We support both of those players. We want both to succeed. Whoever wins the position, we're going to support."

In 10 games last season, Newton completed 83 of his 174 pass attempts for 793 yards, with eight touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Smith, who took over the starting job when Newton went down during the Mississippi State game late in the year, completed 84 of his 153 tries for 819 yards with four touchdowns and four interceptions.

Both players have been competing hard all summer, trying to be leaders off the field by organizing seven-on-seven events and working out with receivers, Warford said.

"They're both working their hardest to be the starter and they're making the whole team better," he said. "They're making the receivers better by getting them more catches. There's not one in front of the other. All I can say is whoever wins that will be really good."

Then there are the two highly touted newcomers who will join the mix officially this week in Highlands star Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow, an athlete out of Prattville, Ala.

"All I can say is I like where we're at right now at that spot right now," Sanders said.

Youth is served

At two kickoff events this week, Kentucky's coaches made it quite clear that they're working with young players this season.

Several quips from offensive coordinator Randy Sanders and defensive coordinator Rick Minter made me chuckle.

"I'm excited about what we have," Sanders told the crowd at UK's annual Kickoff Luncheon on Friday. "We've got about 25 we'll dress out on offense and of those, we've got about 20 who can dress themselves."

At the same event, Minter reminded the crowd that last season he told them: "Our defense is going to be fun and exciting to watch and we happen to have a little experience."

He amended that slightly to fit this year's defense, which lost five of its top seven tacklers from last season.

"This year we're just going to be fun and exciting to watch," he said.

But Minter was quick to say that this defense won't be void of talent or ambition.

"Graduation for some means new opportunities for others," Minter said.

The defense is into year two of his scheme, which should help the returning players. Minter also noted that the staff has been able to start recruiting players who can fit within his scheme.

"We're probably a year or two away from ultimately getting to where we want as far as style, the body types and the makeup and all those things," he told the crowd at the Bluegrass Ballroom. "But we're headed in the right direction."

At the Southeastern Conference Media Days the week before, Phillips noted that 26 of UK's top 44 players are freshmen and sophomores.

"That may seem like disastrous to some," he told the media, before noting that when UK "started this bowl streak, it was 24, not counting the freshmen coming in."

Nine-game SEC schedule?

At the recent Southeastern Conference Media Days, several head coaches were asked if they were in favor of the league moving to a nine-game schedule to accommodate newcomers Missouri and Texas A&M.

Alabama Coach Nick Saban had the strongest opinion on the topic. He said the league's top priority should be that every player at every school have a chance to play every SEC school at least once in his career, which a nine-game SEC format would create.

Saban argued that everyone's "got a self– absorbed opinion about why we shouldn't do it because maybe they won't get bowl eligible.

"We're all playing somebody that is a quality opponent outside the league right now," he argued. "I don't think the difficulty of schedule would be any greater. I think if you're one of the best teams, playing another team in our league, I mean, would just be an opportunity to prove that you are a quality team."

Tennessee Coach Derek Dooley agreed with the nine-game slate, too.

"I mean, there's a lot of talk about the nine– game deal, which I've been for because, again, that familiarity, the fans," he said. "We don't want to lose what made this game special, we don't want to lose what makes this league special."

But for a school like Kentucky, going to that schedule might mean the loss of a longtime rival like Louisville, Cats Coach Joker Phillips cautioned.

"I would be against having a ninth game," Phillips told the SEC press. "That's me taking care of my program. I think I really like the format that we have right now ... (it) gives us an opportunity. We still play the University of Louisville. It gives us a chance to schedule three other out– of– conference games."

Revisiting the Outback

This week the NCAA handed down some of the harshest penalties ever against Penn State and its football program.

Those penalties included a $60 million fine (with proceeds going to victims of child abuse), a loss of football scholarships as well as a four-year bowl ban.

The NCAA also voided Penn State's wins over the past 14 seasons, included in that would be a 26-14 Outback Bowl victory over Kentucky in 1999.

But the NCAA made it clear on its Web site that those voided victories don't equal wins for opponents. Teams are not granted wins, as in a forfeit. It's only that Penn State can't claim the victory.

Cats calendar

This past Thursday's Governor's Cup luncheon in Simpsonville was the official unofficial start to football season for football fans. There are a few more upcoming dates to note that probably will remind you that football season in Kentucky starts six Sundays from today.

■ Kentucky players report on Aug. 3, which also will serve as Media Day for me and my media brethren. Follow me on Twitter @jenheraldleader for updates throughout the day.

■ UK fans' first look at the new team will come on Saturday, Aug. 4 at Fan Day at Commonwealth Stadium.

The day will include an open practice, which is scheduled to start at 6 p.m., as well as an autograph session and fireworks to end the free event. Gates open at 5 p.m. UK notes only gates 2, 3, 4, 9, 10 and 11 will be open.

■ Kentucky will kick off the season at Louisville on Sept. 2 at 3:30 p.m. on ESPN. Cards Coach Charlie Strong noted this week how important that game will be for both teams from a visibility standpoint.

"It's great for both programs because you have a Sunday where only two teams are playing that day and so a lot of people will be watching that game, which is great," Strong said. "It's great exposure and everyone gets to see both teams and more importantly, recruits get to see both teams."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com, ukwomen.bloginky.com

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