Kentucky QB Maxwell Smith 'has come a million miles' since last year

jsmith@herald-leader.comAugust 31, 2012 

  • Tennessee at Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30

    TV: ESPNU

    Records: Kentucky 2-9 (0-7 SEC); Tennessee 4-7 (1-6)

There was no off-season for Kentucky's wide receivers.

Quarterback Maxwell Smith made sure of it.

They'd be lounging by the pool or hanging out at a cookout and they'd get the familiar phone call.

Smith was at the UK practice facility and was looking for company.

"He was out there by himself and he'd call us up and run through the routes," senior Gene McCaskill said of the sophomore.

When Smith wasn't throwing balls to teammates, his head was buried in the Kentucky playbook, learning the things he pretended to know when he was thrust into the starting quarterback role near the end of last season.

When he wasn't studying, he was analyzing video from the season before.

The voice of offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders stuck in his head.

Smith, a true freshman playing in the Southeastern Conference, would try to be a leader in the huddle, but at times it was easy to see he was trying to convince himself that he knew what he was talking about, Sanders said.

"He'd try to tell other people what to do, and I'd tell him, 'Until you do what you're supposed to do every time, you better keep your mouth shut because you lose your credibility,'" Sanders said this week, discussing his tight-knit relationship with the quarterback, who will start Sunday at No. 25 Louisville.

Smith didn't want to be transparent.

He wanted people to believe him and believe in him, so he went to work this summer.

So what has improved for Smith?

"My knowledge of everything," he said summarily.

"I understand things a lot better now. I feel more accurate, more confident about myself. All those reps with the ones in the spring and the fall really was beneficial for me. Hopefully it pays off."

It already has.

His teammates, even the oldest of his teammates, have loads of confidence in their young quarterback.

"He takes so much control now," offensive lineman Larry Warford said. "Last year he was a little bit timid in play calling and calling the protections and all that, but his confidence has grown so much since last year. He's just become 20 times better."

It helps that when Smith comes into the huddle, he's sure about what he's calling, Sanders said with a smile.

"Now when you call a play, you can look in his eyes and see that he knows it," Sanders said of the 6-foot-4, 224-pounder. "Where last year, you knew he knew it, but you could see him processing it."

It might sound like minutiae, but in a huddle when the game is on the line, it means everything.

"If you call a play like it's the best play you've ever heard in your whole life, it instills confidence in everybody else," Sanders said. "If you call it like you're still trying to figure out what you're supposed to do on it and if you're calling it right, that leads to a little doubt."

There is no doubt in Smith now, Warford assured.

"It makes us feel like we're OK," he said. "It spreads through the whole huddle that this guy is confident, so I'm going to follow him. If he feels good about it, then I feel good about it."

That confidence mostly has come from repetition and hard work for the quarterback, who competed 57.4 percent of his passes in his final four games of the season. In that span, he threw for 769 yards and four touchdowns (with two interceptions, both against Georgia).

This Maxwell Smith is a different Maxwell Smith than the one whose season ended in a loss to the Bulldogs after he was sacked for a fourth time.

"It's a big difference," McCaskill said when asked about the evolution of Smith. "It's just something you're going to have to see for yourself. What you saw last year and coming into this season, you just have to see it for yourself."

Even Sanders, the offense's daily dose of reality, has seen a big difference in Smith. "He's come a million miles since last year."

But just because he's improved, earned a little praise from teammates and coaches, gotten better physically and mentally, don't think for a minute that he's stopped working, Smith said.

"I haven't done anything. I haven't proven anything to anyone. That's what I'm here to do: prove I can play, move the ball up and down field and hopefully score touchdowns."

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

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