Mark Story: Could the loss of QB Smith help UK's Phillips keep his job?

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistOctober 1, 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)

The torn ankle ligament that will require surgery and probably sideline Kentucky starting quarterback Maxwell Smith for the season is a severe setback for the sophomore from California, a lightly recruited player who was showing potential of becoming a standout.

For the Kentucky football program, which constructed its entire offense around Smith and his ability to operate a no-huddle, short-passing attack, the injury makes hope of the Cats (1-4) mounting a significant rally in the win-loss column far less likely.

Yet, in an odd twist, embattled Kentucky coach Joker Phillips might benefit in two ways from Monday's news that Smith is out. One, it could create a dynamic that helps Phillips keep his job. Two, it might have alleviated a tricky political situation for Joker involving true freshman quarterback and home-state hero Patrick Towles.

If the University of Kentucky is looking for a reason to retain Phillips, it now has one, independent of UK football's final record in 2012.

Simply put, Smith was the most vital player to UK's season. Although Phillips held out slight hope at his Monday news conference that the QB might return before the season ends, it seems more likely that UK will seek a medical redshirt for him.

Should Smith be finished for 2012, it means Phillips will have had Smith's services for, essentially, three games. Even if you think his third season as Kentucky coach should be a make-or-break year for Joker, is it fair to render final judgment on the coach when his most important player was not available for (potentially) nine contests?

It is a somewhat similar scenario to 2005, when Rich Brooks' third Kentucky team was decimated by injuries. Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and then-UK President Lee Todd factored that in to their decision to give Brooks a fourth season when popular sentiment was clamoring for a coaching change.

We don't know whether Barnhart and now-Kentucky President Eli Capilouto are in that same place regarding Phillips' future. It's not a perfectly analogous situation anyway. Brooks had led Kentucky through a harsh NCAA probation resulting from Hal Mumme-era rules infractions, while Phillips (12-18 overall) inherited a program in the midst of a streak of four winning seasons.

A coaching change would almost certainly lead to more fans in Commonwealth Stadium in 2013 than the relatively small gatherings so far in 2012. Yet with the SEC renegotiating its TV contracts after adding Texas A&M and Missouri, empty seats might not pose the immediate mortal threat to a coach's hold on his job that they did in the past.

So if UK is looking for a reason to keep Joker, Smith's injury gives it a legitimate reason to do so regardless of what happens the rest of the way.

With Smith out, Phillips announced Monday that true freshman Jalen Whitlow will be the starter and that UK is pulling the redshirt off Towles, the former Fort Thomas Highlands star.

On national signing day, 2012, Towles, a 4-star recruit and Kentucky's reigning Mr. Football, was considered the jewel of UK's recruiting effort. Whitlow, a late addition to the Kentucky class who was not even Prattville (Ala.) High School's starting QB, was thought likely to end up as a wide receiver and/or a Wildcat-formation quarterback.

However, according to everyone I've spoken to who watched Kentucky's pre-season practices (which are closed to most media), Whitlow outplayed Towles at quarterback. When it became apparent that Whitlow was going to see live action at QB in 2012 and Towles would be asked to redshirt, it created a complicated public relations scenario for Phillips.

With Smith out, Phillips says, both true freshman QBs will now get to play.

"It could be right in the middle of the series," Phillips said of how he envisions alternating QBs. "If it's not series to series, it could be play after play after play, switching them in and out, give them things that they can both do."

Any scenario in which a coach uses multiple quarterbacks is rife for second-guessing, so this could easily blow up on Phillips.

But with both true freshmen playing, the public gets a chance to render its own evaluation on each, rather than it merely being a coach's decision that Whitlow was more ready to play than Towles.

All of which is why, in a perverse way, the loss of UK's most important player might have given Joker Phillips a better chance of surviving as UK coach.

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