Mark Story: Who should be the UK starting QB? Let's weigh the pros and cons

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 4, 2013 

When Hal Mumme installed the original Air Raid at Kentucky before the 1997 season, there was no quarterback competition. Even though Mumme inherited Billy Jack Haskins as UK's incumbent starter, the new coach named Tim Couch as Kentucky's starting quarterback in December.

Flash forward 16 years. Another new Kentucky head man, Mark Stoops, has hired former Mumme-era Kentucky wide-out Neal Brown as his offensive coordinator with the charge of bringing a pass-oriented, spread attack back to Commonwealth Stadium.

Yet Air Raid 2.0 has a very different scenario than the original did in terms of picking a starting quarterback. As Kentucky officially begins pre-season practice, an intriguing three-headed QB competition will be front and center.

Three sophomores are in the mix to be the first starting QB of the Stoops era.

Maxwell Smith has shown immense promise at Kentucky, but has had trouble staying on the field due to injuries. Patrick Towles was a Kentucky high school football legend at Fort Thomas Highlands. Jalen Whitlow was the star of UK's spring football game.

Who will Stoops and Brown choose in what shapes up as the most visible decision of the new staff's first season? Here are three pros and three cons for each of the three quarterback candidates.

Maxwell Smith

Pros

1. In the three full games he played last season before injuries wrecked his season (and earned him a medical redshirt), the 6-foot-4, 218-pound California product averaged 322 yards a game passing and completed 68.5 percent of his throws.

2. Smith is the only QB on the UK roster with the experience of starting an SEC game that Kentucky won — he threw for 283 yards and two TDs as a true freshman making his first career start in UK's 30-13 win over Mississippi in 2011.

3. Smith's quick release and ability to make snap reads should be perfect for an Air Raid quarterback.

Cons

1. Injuries. Smith started three games in 2011 and got knocked out of action by an injured shoulder. He missed one game in 2012 because of the shoulder problem, then the final seven games because of an ankle injury. Can Smith stay on the field?

2. Smith is a pure pocket passer who brings no "dual-threat" potential to UK's spread attack.

3. Those four interceptions Smith threw in Kentucky's loss to Western Kentucky last season seem an aberration — he has thrown no picks in five of the seven UK games in which he has played extensively. Still, Smith's performance against a strong Western pass rush raises the question of how effective he will be against defenses that can make him "move his feet."

Patrick Towles

Pros

1. In Towles' first career drive at UK last season against Mississippi State, Towles completed five of five passes for 71 yards with a 32-yard TD pass to La'Rod King. That showed a glimpse of what he can be.

2. The 6-foot-5, 225-pounder has dropped 17 pounds from his listed playing weight of last season. That should enhance his ability to keep plays alive with his feet.

3. After earning Mr. Football honors and quarterbacking his Highlands team to three Kentucky state championships, Towles would be a hugely popular choice should he earn the Kentucky starting job.

Cons

1. By his own admission, Towles' passing mechanics, especially his footwork, were not where they needed to be at the end of spring practice

2. In the Blue-White Spring Game, Towles was easily the least effective (6-for-14 passing for 35 yards with an interception and a TD pass) of the three QB contenders.

3. As the only one of the quarterback candidates who has never started a game for Kentucky, Towles is the most unproven in terms of making reads and decisions under SEC-level pressure.

Jalen Whitlow

Pros

1. Whitlow dazzled in the spring game, throwing for 193 yards (17-for-28 with no interceptions) and running for 50 yards while leading drives that yielded three touchdowns and a field goal.

2. Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel are three SEC quarterbacks who have proven the potency in a spread offense of having a signal caller who can make plays with their legs. Alone among the UK contenders, Whitlow would bring that extra dimension.

3. After surviving seven starts last season as a true freshman after Smith was sidelined with injury, Whitlow seemed to "carry himself" with a different level of confidence in the spring.

Cons

1. Whitlow went 1-6 in 2012 as a starter, 0-6 in SEC games.

2. The Prattville, Ala., product failed to complete better than 50 percent of his throws in seven different games last season.

3. He looked better throwing the ball in the spring game but, even with the potential extra dimension Whitlow would bring with his mobility, is he an accurate enough passer to run the Air Raid — an offense that is predicated on a quarterback's ability to make quick throws that hit receivers in stride?

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com.

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