In the first spring practice of the Mark Stoops coaching era at Kentucky, the three-way competition to be UK's starting quarterback is the marquee attraction.
Stoops said Wednesday that if one of the contenders was to pull clearly ahead, "we'll name them (the starter)," he said. "But we're not going to press that issue. ... we're going to take our time and make sure we get it right."
New UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown says it is likely to be later rather than earlier when Kentucky picks its starting QB. "I'll be surprised if we know a whole lot by the end of spring," Brown said, "just because everything is so new."
On Wednesday, UK made its offensive players available to the media for the first time this spring. It seemed an opportune time to check in with the three quarterbacks contending to run Kentucky's new version of the Air Raid offense.
A season ago, the California product won the UK starting job and played at a high level early. In UK's first three games, the 6-foot-4, 232-pound Smith completed 103 of 150 passes for 975 yards with eight touchdown passes and four interceptions (all against Western Kentucky).
But Smith's season was short-circuited by injuries. The quarterback missed Kentucky's road loss at Florida with a shoulder injury, then was knocked out for the season with an ankle injury against South Carolina.
Now, with a brand-new coaching staff installing a brand-new system, Smith finds himself back in a competition for the job that once seemed securely his.
"It definitely stinks," Smith said with a wry grin. "I wish I could have played all of last season, got us some more wins. But it's always a competition (to start). I'm just going to compete."
Smith's quick throwing release, ability to make reads and his accuracy in the short-passing game would seem a good fit in Brown's system. "I like it a lot," Smith said of UK's new offense.
The biggest drawback to Smith in his two seasons at Kentucky has been not staying on the field. As a true freshman in 2011, he made three late-season starts but was knocked out of starting the season finale against Tennessee by a shoulder injury.
Then came last year's ailments (which at least did allow Smith to apply for a medical redshirt and again be listed as a sophomore).
Smith says he now gets up every morning at 5:30 to work with Erik Korem, UK's new "High Performance Coordinator," on ways to enhance the QB's durability.
"I've put on 8, 10 pounds," Smith said. "(Korem) wants me to be a lot more firm in my body, be a lot more muscular. Hopefully, that will help me on not getting injured because, obviously, that has been a little bit of a problem for me and I can't have that anymore."
The ex-Fort Thomas Highlands star, Kentucky's 2011 Mr. Football, is noticeably slimmer than he was last season as a true freshman.
Asked how much weight he's lost, Towles said "about 10 pounds. (UK's) off-season (conditioning) program started the day we got back (from semester break) and went to the day we left for spring break, and it was real intense. I think this is the smartest we've ever really worked out. My body is in really good shape right now."
The initial plan last season was to redshirt the 6-5, 234-pound Towles. Then, after Smith was knocked out for the season, his redshirt was pulled. On his first drive in his first game against Mississippi State, Towles went 5-for-5 passing and threw a 32-yard touchdown pass.
A high ankle sprain, however, pretty much derailed the remainder of his season.
Towles says he's excited about Brown's Hal Mumme-type passing attack because it feels similar to what he ran in his state-championship-winning days at Highlands.
"This really translates to the system I ran in high school," Towles said. "I can relate to this system, I kind of feel at home in it."
At the time he signed with Kentucky, the Prattville, Ala., product was considered a potential Wildcat-formation quarterback.
But the 6-2, 208-pound Whitlow threw the ball better than expected in last season's training camp. After Smith was injured, he wound up making seven starts as a true freshman.
Whitlow had some good moments (South Carolina first half, Tennessee) but completed only 54 percent of his passes for a team that finished 2-10.
"I got thrown in the fire a little bit," he said, "but I got better and better as the season went along, I felt. I think that experience is going to help me a lot. (It gives me) confidence, just assurance, from being out there."
Conventional wisdom is that Whitlow's big edge in the UK QB competition is the extra dimension his running ability would potentially bring to the offense.
But that is not what he's counting on to win the job, Whitlow says.
"I'm really focused on the whole mental aspect," Whitlow said. "The physical aspect, that will always be there. But the mental aspect, progressions, getting the ball out quick, reading the defense, that's what I'm really focusing on right now."
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com