Mark Story: Where does Kentucky go from here at quarterback?

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 14, 2013 

Against No. 7 Louisville, Jalen Whitlow needed to throw to dig Kentucky out of a two-touchdown hole in the fourth quarter. As he tried, UK starting quarterback Maxwell Smith stood on the sideline, ice wrapped around his throwing shoulder, and watched.

All off-season, the concerns about the top two candidates to run Kentucky's Air Raid 2.0 attack were easy to identify:

Could the injury-plagued Smith, whose passing skill would seem to best fit the offense, stay on the field?

Could the dual-threat Whitlow, as much as his running ability teased the imagination, throw accurately enough to make the Air Raid go?

In the third week of the season, the conventional wisdom about the UK QB situation proved disturbingly prescient.

Smith got knocked out of the game in the second half with another shoulder injury. Whitlow could not make enough plays through the air to allow Kentucky to really threaten Louisville.

U of L (3-0) claimed the Governor's Cup for the third straight year with a 27-13 victory over UK before 65,445 fans in Commonwealth Stadium. On a day when the Wildcats defense fought gamely against Heisman candidate Teddy Bridgewater, Kentucky's QBs — victimized by at least seven dropped balls — managed to complete only 17 of 37 passes.

"You're going to struggle to win any football game when you are 17-of-37," UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown said.

Its passing attack struggling, UK went 0-for-13 on third-down conversions. Kentucky's two quarterbacks were involved in three turnovers. Whitlow lost a fumble and threw a pick. With the Cats down 10-3 late in the first half, Smith had a critical fumbled handoff with Raymond Sanders at the U of L 13 that was the game's pivotal play.

"Too many mistakes," Smith said. "... You can't have turnovers. If we don't turn over the ball, it's probably a different story."

The same UK defense that surrendered 487 yards to Western Kentucky in week one caught Louisville by surprise with a five-man defensive front. UK held the Cardinals without a touchdown on their first six drives of the game.

Yet the UK offense could not take advantage. One series seemed to set the tone. After U of L had taken a 3-0 lead on a John Wallace field goal that was set up by Whitlow's fumble, UK's Javess Blue returned the ensuing kickoff to the Cardinals 43.

Kentucky freshman Ryan Timmons got behind the U of L secondary on the first play from scrimmage on a fly pattern; Smith overthrew him.

Three plays later, Louisville blitzed Smith from the right side; UK had the perfect play called in response, a wide-receiver screen to the defense's left. A.J. Legree dropped the pass.

"Every quarterback has to deal with that at some point," Smith said of the drops. "My mindset is just 'move on to the next play.'"

After U of L's first six drives yielded three points, its next three produced 17. Pressed into a position in which it needed to throw, Kentucky lost its best passer.

Two years ago, Smith made three starts before he was knocked out by a shoulder injury. Last season, he made four starts, before shoulder and ankle injuries sidelined him.

Saturday, he said his throwing shoulder "started feeling weird" late in the third quarter. "I think my arm was coming forward and I hit a D-lineman's hand and it stopped my arm real abruptly," Smith said. "I think that's what caused it. I'm not sure."

Whatever happened, Smith left the field holding his right arm gingerly. He said he tried to throw on the sideline, "but I had no velocity. I just felt like I wasn't the best choice for the team, I felt like Jalen should go in."

With UK down 27-6, Whitlow led Kentucky on its sole TD drive of the day. He finished it with a 3-yard pass to freshman Alex Montgomery. But the true sophomore QB missed several open receivers and finished 8-for-17 passing for 105 yards.

Now, the Wildcats have an open date before they will play Florida, South Carolina and Alabama back-to-back-to-back.

Smith said he believes his shoulder will be ready by the time UK faces Florida on Sept. 28. But can you count on it?

Whitlow shows promise on the ground, but against good teams, can he throw with enough accuracy to run a system that is predicated on hitting receivers in stride so they can make plays?

For that matter, do you even consider pulling a redshirt off Patrick Towles mid-season for a second straight year?

At a bad time, Kentucky's quarterback situation is exactly where many feared it would be in the summer — a muddle.

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

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