John Clay: Newton's turn doomed from the start

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 22, 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)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Deep beneath the grandstand at The Swamp, Morgan Newton was standing against a wall in the post-game interview room, surrounded by media, with the resigned look of someone who knows what's coming.

It was also the look of: What can you do?

"It's tough," said the senior quarterback, now a backup. "Over a career, it seems like inopportune, a lot of things. It's just bad timing, bad situations, bad circumstances. Post-Randall Cobb. Post-Chris Matthews. But pre-(DeMarcus) Sweat. Pre-Demarco (Robinson). Pre all these other guys.

"It just has been tough, and it makes me look like a lot worse player than I probably am."

Pressed into starting duty by Maxwell Smith's bruised shoulder, Newton played, well, poorly in Kentucky's 38-0 loss at Florida.

In three quarters, he completed just seven of 21 passes for 48 yards. He was intercepted three times.

All three picks came in the second quarter. Florida took the middle of the three back for a score, Jaylen Watkins snatching a telegraphed delivery from Newton and returning it 26 yards for a 17-0 Florida lead.

"It wasn't a good look," admitted Newton. "I probably should have thrown it away."

If he didn't see this coming, neither did anyone else, not four years ago when Newton signed with UK as a four-star recruit, and certainly not four days ago when there was no inkling Smith might not be able to go.

In fact, after Thursday's practice, Coach Joker Phillips told the media he had no worries about the sophomore Smith, who had thrown for nearly 1,000 yards through the first three games.

It was not the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said he knew Thursday — after watching Smith throw — that a shoulder bruised against WKU last Saturday might keep the quarterback from playing at Florida.

When the trainer gave Phillips and Sanders an iffy progress report — another injury to the same shoulder could knock Smith out for weeks — the duo decided Friday to go with Plan B.

"I can't say I was surprised," said Newton, who said he received official notice during pre-game. "All week, people had been telling me to be ready."

Not an easy task. Though still listed as the backup quarterback, Newton had been practicing more and more at an H-back spot.

"I haven't done much quarterback reps since camp almost," he said Saturday. "It was a tough feat this week."

For Newton it's been a tough career, one of those unfortunate cases where production hasn't met publicity.

His best football came as a true freshman, after starter Mike Hartline got hurt, and Newton helped guide UK to five wins and the Music City Bowl.

The following season, the Indianapolis native couldn't beat out Hartline in fall camp. He was pressed into duty when Hartline was suspended before the BBVA Compass Bowl. That, too, didn't go well. Kentucky lost to Pittsburgh 27-10.

Last season, the job was all his, at least until his play opened the door for backup Max Smith. This fall, Smith won the job full-time.

Newton's career arc isn't an isolated one. Kentucky's problem doesn't have as much to do with coaching as it does with developing. There are good players in the junior and senior classes, just not nearly enough to be competitive in a tough league.

So Friday, when Phillips and Sanders decided they would rather save Smith for future games, they asked Newton to run a no-huddle, short-passing offense that relies on accuracy and a quick release, neither a Newton strength.

A year ago, Morgan Newton was expected to be the leader of the team. This week, he was asked to take one for the team.

"I was proud of the attitude he had," Sanders said. "It was a very tough situation for him to step into. There's no question about that. I feel for him that way, but I appreciate the type person he is and the character he has and the commitment he has to this football team by having the type attitude he had when he went out there."

Said Newton, "I tried to be there for my team in this situation. And it didn't work out very well."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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