Two UK freshman quarterbacks cramming to conjure upset over No. 20 Mississippi State

jsmith3@herald-leader.comOctober 5, 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)

Finals are still weeks away, but freshmen Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles have been cramming like crazy this week.

For Kentucky's true freshmen quarterbacks there have been tutoring sessions with offensive coordinator Randy Sanders and extra time in the film room.

They have been studying the finer points of the Kentucky offense as they prepare for their biggest test yet: sharing the duties of starting quarterback on Saturday against No. 20 Mississippi State, the Cats' third straight ranked, unbeaten Southeastern Conference foe.

Getting Whitlow, who played most of the last game, and Towles, who has been running the scout team all fall, ready to be the co-starters (as Coach Joker Phillips calls them) will be a challenge to say the least.

"We're gonna throw them out there and see what they can do," Phillips said. "It's difficult to get a true freshman ready to play with all the things that are involved, especially some of the defenses that we see."

Mississippi State could be an even bigger challenge with its veteran, aggressive secondary that is second in the nation with nine interceptions.

Phillips said that UK can't worry about the Bulldogs (4-0, 1-0 SEC). It has enough to worry about preparing Whitlow and Towles.

"We have to run what our kids are comfortable in running," Phillips said. "We don't really look at the corners or the secondary, we have to run what our kids, our two young freshmen can run and not be looking at the defenses as much."

It's not clear exactly how UK plans to use Towles, the Mr. Football from Highlands, and Whitlow, whom coaches said last week had about 10 percent of the playbook in his arsenal.

The coaches said this week that they'd "play it by ear," that the duo would be put in "situationally."

There could be rotating series or even rotations within series.

"These guys have enough, we hope, that they can execute each one of them individually, that we can keep (Mississippi State) off balance," Phillips said.

There's so much on the freshmen already that Phillips is counting on offensive veterans like center Matt Smith and guard Larry Warford to do their part to lighten the load.

"Again, it's definitely helpful to have a senior center and a senior guard, but there's still a lot of babies around them," the UK coach said.

"One thing I told the receivers this Tuesday is, it's their job to make the quarterbacks comfortable, feel a little bit better about what they're doing."

Kentucky (1-4, 0-2) has had plenty of experience working new quarterbacks in.

Last season against Mississippi State, starter Morgan Newton went out with an ankle injury and true freshman Maxwell Smith was called on.

Then UK had to scramble again when Smith and Newton were both down and it turned wide receiver Matt Roark into a quarterback, with roughly 10 plays in the game plan. The result was a win over Tennessee.

The rest of the offense is trying to do what it can to help.

"We just want to rally behind both of those guys," junior running back Raymond Sanders said. "We can do it with two quarterbacks. We just want to get a 'W' and we feel like both of those guys are capable of taking us there."

The Kentucky offense is more than just a quarterback.

"It's up to us, the guys who have been in there before, to make those adjustments and help them out," Matt Smith said. "We've just got to run our offense the way we know how."

Randy Sanders has worked all week with Towles and Whitlow, trying to tailor an offense built for Maxwell Smith, and turn it into an offense the freshmen can share.

Sanders has tried to figure out which parts suit which quarterback and which plays they're most comfortable running.

"Anything you can eliminate, and anything you can make easier for them, that's what you try to do," Sanders said.

Phillips agreed.

"You've got to give them enough, but not so much that you complicate things for them," he said.

No one involved expects that this will be a flawless transition. They're all well aware that true freshman quarterbacks playing in the SEC is a scary prospect.

"There's going to be mistakes," Randy Sanders said. "You've just got to make sure the mistakes aren't the kind that kill your team."

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

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