UK football notebook: Stoops' first order of business will be to choose his quarterback

Herald-Leader Staff WriterDecember 1, 2012 

Maybe Randy Sanders didn't call games the way Kentucky fans wanted.

Maybe Kentucky's outgoing offensive coordinator was too conservative or maybe he took too many chances. Maybe he used personnel that left fans scratching their heads.

But whatever they thought of Sanders, who spent seven seasons at UK, the coach knows quarterbacks.

So in the long goodbye weeks of November, Sanders was asked about the future of that all-important quarterback spot at Kentucky.

He didn't hesitate. There was no pump fake.

Sanders thinks UK's quarterback of the future is sophomore Maxwell Smith.

"Unless the offense changes drastically (like moving to a QB run game), then I have a hard time believing he won't be the quarterback," Sanders said. "There's a reason it took us eight games to pass up the passing yardage total that Max had. There's a reason we went from averaging 320-some yards a game passing and 30-some points to where we're at now."

In fact, in the seven games after Smith went out for good with his ankle injury, UK's passing game amassed just 966 yards. That's nine fewer yards than Smith managed in the first three games (and his one 9-yard play against South Carolina).

Aside from picking a staff, picking his quarterback of the future might be one of the most important decisions new UK coach Mark Stoops will have to make. And he has plenty of contenders, who all will be classified as sophomores next season.

If Smith, Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow all return next season (and they or their connections have indicated they plan to do so), this could be the most intense battle of the spring.

On his way out, Joker Phillips, like Sanders, an offensive-minded guy, also endorsed Smith as the future QB for Kentucky.

"Just his confidence level," Phillips said when asked why Smith. "The skill guys ... they follow quarterbacks. They do. And Max has the ability to lead those guys. That's why we didn't perform as well when Max went down. Max was their leader.

"Now, those other (quarterbacks) might come a long way, similar to what Max did in one year, but if you had to think right now, I would think that Max would be the quarterback."

For their part, the other quarterbacks are glad they'll get their chance to prove the former staff wrong in the spring under Stoops, who will be formally announced at a news conference on Sunday at 3 p.m.

"When these new coaches come in here, it's going to be their decision on who plays," said Towles, who was forced into action after an attempt at a redshirt season for the Mr. Football from Highlands. In his five games (splitting time with Whitlow and battling an ankle injury), Towles threw for 233 yards on 19 of 40 passes for a touchdown and an interception.

"I'm going to do whatever I can, work as hard as I can," Towles continued. "Next spring is going to be a clean slate. Everybody's going to start fresh. I'm confident in what I can do and what I'm able to learn, and I think that I'll be able to hold my own."

Whitlow, who threw for 801 yards, three touchdowns and two picks (87-for-161) in 10 games, agreed.

"I feel like I'm definitely ready for the spring and to compete for the job," Whitlow said. "It's competition. That's what football is about. ... It is what it is, just gotta fight for the job."

■ A few canned quotes from the UK sports information staff is the only time Maxwell Smith has been heard from since the ankle injury. He has been off limits to the media since then.

"Things are going well," he said. "I am a lot further along in the rehab process, starting to do some ladder drills and starting to jog a little bit here and there so that is good. It is getting close, but not fully there yet where I am able to run and get out and throw routes."

One other interesting tidbit that came out of those canned quotes was Smith saying that he knew Stoops' brother, Mike, from when he was the head coach at Arizona and recruited Smith, a California native.

Back in blue

There are still so many big questions to be answered by the yet-to-be-named coaching staff, but they're not inheriting an empty locker room.

In fact, just seven listed starters graduate on offense and defense combined and only one starter at the so-called skill position on offense, wide receiver La'Rod King. King finished his season with 488 yards on 48 catches for four touchdowns.

Nearly 95 percent of the Cats' rushing yardage and nearly 97 percent of its passing yards are expected to return next season.

On defense, 11 of Kentucky's top 15 tacklers are expected to be back, including the Cats' top three in linebackers Avery Williamson (135), Bud Dupree (91) and Miles Simpson (70).

Season wrap up

There are always bits and scraps that get left on the press box floor as you're hacking out a game story and notes.

There were a lot of those from the week leading up to the Cats' final loss at Tennessee, so here are a few I found most interesting:

■ Both Randy Sanders and defensive coordinator Rick Minter talked about their futures two weeks ago, here's what they said.

Sanders said time he normally spent making recruiting calls in the final week, he made calls to discuss future destinations and positions. He didn't rule out a head coaching job eventually.

"I have no clue what's next," he said. "I would like to be a head coach sometime in the right situation, but I love coaching quarterbacks, love coordinating."

Minter, who was on his 13th coaching stop at UK, said there will be a 14th for sure.

"I've always aspired to try to get into the NFL, and I'd love to have the opportunity to do that," he said. "Whether that can occur, who knows. I've been trying since I was fired at Cincinnati to do that, and it hasn't happened yet, so time is running out."

■ As for the head coach, Joker Phillips said his more immediate future would include relaxing and catching up on correspondence. He has time to make a long-term decision with a reported $2.5 million buyout in his future.

"I'm going to relax a little bit, start fielding some of the calls I've had, fielding some of the texts that I've had, emails, all those things," he said after his final game at UK. "They came in hundreds in this last three weeks and you can't field them all, but I plan to, some of the notes also. I'm going to relax and get back to people."

He used to not answer calls from numbers he didn't know. Not anymore.

"I'm answering it," he said. "Might be a potential employer."

Hot ticket?

After averaging less than 50,000 fans a game (an announced average of 49,691 for seven games) at Commonwealth Stadium for the first time since 1996, UK is reporting that ticket sales are way up since the announcement of the new head coach.

The huge influx of calls, which started on Tuesday, when Stoops was named head coach, and went all day Wednesday, caused Kentucky to revamp its ticket renewal plans as well.

In previous seasons, renewal applications didn't go out until February, but this season, fans can reserve seats with a deposit. In February, fans that have called for season tickets in advance will be able to choose their seats for the 2013 season, which will include marquee home games against Louisville, Florida, Alabama, Missouri and Tennessee.

For the first time, they also will be able to do it using an interactive seat map that UK is developing via TicketMaster.

Here's the info to get tickets: go to www.ukathletics/tickets or call the UK Ticket Office weekdays from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. at (859) 257-1818 or toll free (800) 928-2287.

A cat from the past

Usually this space is reserved for a former Cat from way back who is doing something special or out of the ordinary, but when a Twitter follower pointed me toward this info on former UK linebacker Ridge Wilson, I wanted to pass it along.

If you recall, Wilson, who was supposed to be one of the more veteran defenders for UK this season, was arrested on felony drug charges in February and dismissed from the team.

Turns out the Louisville native landed at Div. II West Alabama, where he was a unanimous selection as Defensive Player of the Year in the All-Gulf South Conference.

This season, Wilson had 52 tackles (including 10 for a loss) and 11 sacks. He also had five quarterback hurries, forced two fumbles and recovered one.

If you know of a former UK player doing something special or interesting or want to know what happened to a Cat from the past, please contact me.

The paragraph below will tell you how:

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Email: jsmith3@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com

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