UK football notebook: QBs putting team before competition for top spot

Herald-Leader Staff WriterJuly 20, 2013 

Kentucky quarterback Jalen Whitlow threw downfield during the Blue-White football game Saturday in Lexington. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

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If a quarterback frontrunner has asserted himself over the summer, Kentucky's players weren't saying.

Neither defensive tackle Donte Rumph, running back Raymond Sanders nor linebacker Avery Williamson admitted to seeing a leader emerge at the Cats' key position last week at Southeastern Conference Media Days.

It hasn't seemed like there's a quarterback competition at all between sophomores Maxwell Smith, Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles, they said.

"All of them have been leaders, I feel like," Williamson said. "They've tried to lead the team and they don't go behind each other's backs and stuff. They're all good guys. They think about the team before themselves."

Sanders noted that even true freshman Reese Phillips has gotten in on the leadership act and has tried to keep the offense on the same page.

Yes, one of the players will earn the position. Yes, Whitlow showed glimpses of being special in the Blue-White Spring Game, but each quarterback brings different skills to the field, the players said.

And all four have been working hard to make sure players are working out in the off-season and working together as a team.

"All four of those guys are out there making sure everyone's out there throwing, making sure everyone's getting their extra work," Sanders said. "Those guys are doing a great job."

But Sanders said none of the three has separated himself. He also said that's possibly by design.

Maybe the quarterbacks are sending an important message to everyone on the team by working together despite the obvious competition in front of them in fall camp, he said.

"We're all a family and we're all competing, but we all work together as a family and that's what they're doing," Sanders said. "They're doing a great job. It's not just one of those guys, it's all four of those guys coming in, tugging guys, making sure, just checking up on guys."

Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops admitted that having a definitive starter at quarterback is helpful in the off-season, but that didn't happen in the spring.

He offered no timetable for when UK will name a starter. Offensive coordinator Neal Brown has hinted that he'd like it to be midway through fall camp, which starts Aug. 4.

"Why rush that situation if it's not clear cut? That's not fair to anybody," Stoops said. "We want to make sure we make the right decision and we will make that decision when it's clear cut. If it takes one day, it takes one day. If it takes a week, a couple weeks, or into the season, I think those players have earned that right."

Expectation adjustment?

Want to see Kentucky's coach squirm?

Ask Stoops about expectations for the team this season.

Ask him about tempering those expectations when he knows he is lacking depth at several key positions, and knowing that UK is playing likely the toughest schedule in the nation.

The list goes on and on.

So when Stoops was asked at Media Day last week if he wanted fans to keep their expectations low during the transition, he started to squirm a little bit.

"To be honest with you, (it's) an uncomfortable situation for me because it's not my style really to try to temper those expectations," he said.

"I think the educated fan knows where we're at as a program, knows we have a lot of work to do. But the flipside of that is I want the excitement. I want them there. I want them to support our players that we have on our team right now. I want them at all of our home games."

That was music to the ears of the Kentucky players who attended last week as spokesmen for the program. Williamson, Rumph and Sanders are all seniors. It's now or never for them, and they know that.

So when Rumph hears talk of the future, when he sees fans talking about the 2014 class or the next season, he shrugs.

He gets a little bit annoyed when he hears people say the team is a year away from finding success: "I don't want to hear that at all. I'm enjoying my journey and it's not over so I'm just trying to enjoy these last few months."

Behind closed weight-room and locker-room doors, Stoops doesn't sound like he's trying to quash expectations. He's doing what he can to get the players prepared for what probably will be a challenging season.

"We plan on going out and competing each and every week," Stoops said. "We understand that the challenges are there. ... We're not going out there to put all this hard work in to not compete and not try to win games."

It's not just fans and players who have expectations for the season. Stoops was asked if he tried to lessen the expectations of recruits that the turnaround would happen quickly.

The coach said honesty is the best policy.

"They know what they have; they know what we did last year," he said. "They just got to believe in where you're going and where the future's going of your program, what you're doing."

'Lit a fire under us'

If fans are looking for reasons to be optimistic about the season, Kentucky's players offered many, as players for every team tend to do in the pre-season.

But last week, the players said there's more confidence in the locker room now than there has been in a long time.

Rumph was brutally honest when asked where the players were mentally after Joker Phillips was fired.

"Confused, didn't know what to expect, lost, didn't know what direction we were going in," he said.

But Stoops came in immediately and started to refocus the team.

"He lit a fire under us and we got going," Rumph said. "We got motivated. We got fans excited again. We got everybody involved in UK football, and that's what it's all about."

Sanders noted a change in attitude overall in the Kentucky locker room and weight room.

"You're working hard and you see your teammates working hard and it changes your attitude," he said. "It changes everyone. Everyone is on the same page and working hard for the same goals."

Williamson was asked what was the biggest difference between this summer and his previous summers at UK and he didn't hesitate. He noted UK is having more consistent seven-on-seven games. He sees receivers on the JUGS machines constantly. He called it a total team commitment.

"The coaches are holding us accountable and the players are holding each other accountable," Williamson said.

When Stoops came in, so did a wave of confidence.

"He's really inspired us to keep going out there, working harder and he's put that confidence in us that we're going to win games this fall, big games," Williamson said.

'Heartbreaking' loss

It's easy to talk about an injury in clinical, technical ways.

But for the players on the field with that injured teammate, it's emotional and raw. Senior Raymond Sanders was that way when he discussed the latest injury to fellow running back Josh Clemons, who will miss this season after tearing his Achilles' tendon two weeks ago.

"It's a big blow," Sanders said of the injury. "He's our friend. He's our brother. We see him working hard with rehab (for an injured knee in 2011) and getting confidence in his knee and just getting better. And to see something happen like that, it's just hard. We know how hard he worked and we know how much he was putting in. It's just heartbreaking."

A busy week for Stoops

By the end of this week, Stoops is going to wish he had at least one body double.

Capping a busy weekend of camps at UK that included more than 1,000 potential recruits, Stoops heads to Bristol, Conn., on Tuesday for ESPN's annual "Car Wash" where head coaches spend the day on various platforms and programs discussing their teams for an entire day.

On Wednesday, the Governor's Cup Luncheon to preview the Kentucky-Louisville game will happen in Louisville with Cards Coach Charlie Strong. Stoops will be back in Louisville two days later for the Wildcat Kickoff Luncheon.

Early Saturday morning, more than 500 female fans will crowd Commonwealth Stadium for the annual women's clinic, then Stoops will follow that up with a charity function later that evening.

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

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