Mark Story: Counted out, Patrick Towles moves back into the UK QB picture

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistApril 26, 2014 

Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops said on Friday that the quarterback who took the field first in the Blue-White Spring Game would be the guy who had taken a slight lead in UK's race for the starting QB job.

Patrick Towles said he learned about an hour before Saturday's 3:30 p.m. kickoff that he would be that guy.

For a player who could not beat out the run-oriented Jalen Whitlow or an injury-damaged Maxwell Smith last season even as UK struggled through a 2-10 slog, it was a moment of redemption.

Said Towles: "Somebody came up to me three or four months ago with (a newspaper) article, I don't know what paper it was, but it talked about the (UK) quarterback race. It didn't even mention me."

You can imagine how that made the former Fort Thomas Highlands star, considered a program-altering recruit when he signed with Joker Phillips in 2012, feel. "That's kind of motivating," he said.

On a sun-drenched Saturday afternoon, a healthy crowd realistically announced at 35,117, saw the Blue (UK's starters) beat the White 38-14.

If you were handicapping the three-headed Kentucky quarterback battle, you did not see anyone deliver a knockout punch. You did see things from all three candidates — Towles; redshirt freshman Reese Phillips; true freshman and early enrollee Drew Barker — that provided hope for better days ahead.

For the game, Towles completed 11 of 15 passes for 126 yards with one interception. Phillips, a Chattanooga, Tenn., product, was 10-for-17 for 78 yards with two touchdown passes. Barker, the ex-Conner High School standout, finished 7-for-19 for 74 yards with a TD toss. All three QBs alternated series and played for both teams.

"I thought they were really tight today," Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "I thought they played tight. This wasn't their best day as far as throwing the football. You could tell they were nervous."

Touted coming out of Highlands as the heir to the mantle of Tim Couch, Jared Lorenzen and Andre' Woodson as in-state QB star at UK, Towles fought injuries in his true freshman season. In last year's UK spring game, Towles was the least effective of the four Kentucky scholarship quarterbacks who played. He completed only 6 of 14 passes for 35 yards. That set the stage for his redshirting in 2013.

Rather than sulking over a college career that had yet to launch, Towles worked this past off-season on changing his throwing mechanics. Playing quarterback in Brown's Air Raid 2.0 offense depends on making quick, accurate, short throws.

The 6-foot-5, 236-pound Towles came to Kentucky with a bazooka for an arm, but also with an elongated throwing motion and bad footwork that prevented him from getting the ball out fast and impaired his accuracy in the short-passing game.

"Totally different player (now) than I was last year," Towles said Saturday. "It's night and day."

How so? "My release is a lot shorter," Towles said. "... I feel like my feet are so much better. They were slow, then they were average and now they are fast."

The most impressive part of Towles' effort Saturday was his ability — showing off his arm strength — to complete deep out patterns. He also led a two-minute drill in the last 53 seconds of the first half that set up an Austin MacGinnis field goal.

Phillips, a 6-2, 222-pounder, reminded me a little bit of a bigger version of former Hal Mumme-era UK QB Dusty Bonner. Phillips' throws were accurate, but on some of his deep outs there was some air under the ball. "Consistent. Very consistent," Brown said of Phillips. "He makes a lot of good decisions. He does not make big negative plays."

Barker, not surprisingly for a QB who should still be in high school, looked shaky at times. "I didn't have my best day," he said. Asked if he felt nerves, Barker said "I'd be lying if I said I didn't."

After the game, both Stoops and Brown emphasized that the starting UK QB job for this fall has not been claimed. "(Towles) went out there first," Brown said, "but don't read too much into that."

Said Stoops: "I'm proud of the effort Pat has done and I really like the other two, as well. I think the other two are great quarterbacks and certainly had some great days this spring. So we'll see."

Still, when you started spring drills not even being included in articles about the UK QB battle and ended it as the first signal caller in the spring game, well, that's a win for Patrick Towles.

"I felt like I did a pretty good job today," Towles said. "And I'm just going to keep on working."

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

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