Whitlow might have seen the light at South Carolina

jsmith3@herald-leader.comOctober 11, 2013 

Coaches talk about the moment when a light comes on for a player.

The moment when everything comes together and he just starts making plays.

Kentucky coaches and players may look back at the fourth quarter against South Carolina last week and point to it as the time when Jalen Whitlow's switch was flipped.

After a rocky start against the Gamecocks — one that caused Coach Mark Stoops to ponder taking the sophomore quarterback out and replacing him — Whitlow played a monster fourth quarter.

"As an offense, we got in a rhythm," Whitlow said after the 35-28 loss. "We were clicking. We were clicking, man. It's always a good feeling. It's that feeling that you know you're going to score."

The quarterback led UK on three scoring drives. In that quarter, the Cats had drives of 75 yards and 81 yards. Whitlow, known more for his running than passing, went 4-for-6 in that quarter, including a season-best 33-yard pass to Javess Blue.

"By no means was he perfect tonight — you all watched the game — but he got better," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said of Whitlow. "This was a positive step against one of the top teams in the country here at their place, in a great atmosphere."

Whitlow's dramatic improvement hasn't been lost on the Cats' next opponent, top-ranked Alabama, which comes to Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday night.

"He's really, really impressed me with the way he's progressed through this season," Alabama Coach Nick Saban said of Whitlow. "Every game, he's played a little bit better and he really played well in the South Carolina game. He's a really good athlete. He's playing really well right now and he played extremely well against South Carolina."

There hasn't been a noticeable change in Whitlow this week. But there have been some subtle differences, coaches said.

"It's an ongoing process," Brown said. "He's learning how to prepare week in and week out. But ... I think his personality's coming forward a little bit more maybe. That would be fair to say as far as speaking up. But those were the main things I'd say."

Brown talked about teaching a young quarterback to prepare, about how Whitlow is getting better at spending time by himself watching film and dissecting plays.

"What he's done is he's calmed down, first of all, and he's got more confidence going into games because of his preparation," Brown said. "Preparation gives you confidence. The more prepared you are, the more confidence you're going to have in certain situations."

Whitlow called it a "maturation point," that he's gotten better at preparing for opponents as the season has gone on.

"Just learning as I go, bits and pieces," Whitlow said. "Coach Brown has taught me a lot about how to prepare for teams, studying film, breaking down film, and coming out here and executing it at practice."

This might be the one week that Whitlow doesn't want to watch extra film.

The sophomore will see the mountain UK is preparing to climb against the Crimson Tide's dominating defense, which has held opponents to 10 points or fewer in all but one of its five games this season.

Alabama is second in the league in total defense, allowing 299.8 yards a game and just 5.1 yards a play.

The defending national champion Crimson Tide is tied as the nation's No. 4 scoring defense, allowing just seven touchdowns and four field goals in five games this season.

Kentucky faced the No. 1 scoring defense (Louisville) and the No. 4 scoring defense (Florida) in the past handful of weeks.

But Alabama (5-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) and its long history of football domination aren't new to Whitlow, a native of Prattville, Ala., a place where he estimated that "99.9 percent of the people" are Crimson Tide fans.

Whitlow's sister Sylvia attends Alabama and helps show recruits around on their football visits.

"It's crazy at my house," Whitlow said. "My parents, you know, they've got all their Alabama gear because my sister goes there. ... My brother, he likes Alabama, so yeah it's been a crazy week."

But Whitlow has to calm the crazy and focus on what he can do to help Kentucky (1-4, 0-2) move the ball.

"A lot of people back home, you know, will be watching cause it's Alabama," he said. "But just got to try to calm down and just play."

It's what Whitlow told himself in the final quarter against South Carolina.

It's maybe what helped flip that initial switch. Whitlow just hopes the light isn't extinguished by this Alabama defense.

"You just get that feeling that you're the guy to help the team win, so you have to embrace that role and try to make it happen."

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

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