Faced with need to make big changes, UK QB Patrick Towles didn't flinch

jsmith3@herald-leader.comApril 28, 2014 

Patrick Towles could have pouted.

He could have pointed to his three high school state championship trophies or his shelves of individual honors.

A Parade All-American, Paul Hornung Award winner and a Kentucky Mr. Football with mechanical issues? Seriously?

When UK's coaches gave him the laundry list of things to clean up — his throw, his grip, his footwork, his timing — Towles could've thrown his hands in the air and walked away.

Instead, he threw himself into fixing his throw.

"He never batted an eye or questioned it, just went out and did it," said Donny Walker, Towles' quarterback tutor. "He never questioned why or anything, he just said, 'OK. Tell me what to do.'"

The Towles who walked out as the Kentucky starter in the Blue-White Spring Game is not the same Towles from last spring.

"I'm a totally different player than I was last year," he said Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium. "It's night and day."

But it didn't happen overnight for the quarterback who went 44-1 as a starter at Highlands High School, passing for more than 7,400 yards and 73 touchdowns.

It started this winter with offensive coordinator Neal Brown, who drilled Towles on his footwork (NCAA rules prohibit work with balls at that time of the off-season).

The quarterback knew he still wasn't where he needed to be to win the starting job, so he sought out Walker, the former Franklin County coach and national consultant who knows the up-tempo, Air Raid offense so well he goes around the country teaching it.

Walker had seen Towles play in high school and at some UK practices, and he was familiar with the quarterback's problem areas. To go about fixing them, the two met two to three times a week starting in March.

"I told him this is going to be like learning how to breathe again," Walker told the Herald-Leader on Monday. "This is something you have to be able to do without thinking about it. ... I was asking him to do things completely differently than he'd done it in the past."

'Work, work and more work'

What exactly was wrong with Towles' throw?

The list is long, and the fix time is sometimes much longer.

But somehow the quarterback found a way to do it faster than most.

"It's amazing how quickly he's changed," Walker said. "He's made it look fairly easy.

"To be able to go and do what he's been able to do over the last two months is to me an anomaly."

It was a head-to-toe fix trying to shorten Towles' delivery.

"We tried to cut out and eliminate anything that was wasted motion and just make it more efficient," Walker explained.

Previously, Towles would hold the ball high above his ear, which forced him to drop it down to throw it.

"Now, instead of what I call a windup where he drops it down toward his hip and then brings it back up and throws it again, now he just pushes it straight back behind his ear," Walker said.

All of that extra motion and movement cost valuable seconds, which can be the difference between a touchdown pass and an interception.

"So we just moved it down to his throat, instead of up on his ear, then it was easier for him to just push it back and throw it from there," said Walker, who also helped Towles change his grip slightly so the ball would come out more quickly.

The quarterback also had what Walker calls a "false step," where he took an extra stride with his left foot before he even got into his drop. On his important first step with his right foot, they eliminated an unnecessary swinging motion.

When a quarterback alters so much of his throw, it can destroy his timing. So Towles had to learn all of that again, too.

They worked on Towles' rhythm and made alterations for one-, three- and five-step drops so he'd be able to come out of any of them into a comfortable, fundamentally sound position, and get the throw off quickly.

Walker saw Towles' swagger change when it all started to come together again.

"He started to feel more comfortable with it, and from there you could see it blossoming," Walker said. "You could see the confidence and everything start to develop from that point on."

It's an ever-evolving process, Towles said Saturday after he completed 11 of his 15 passes for 126 yards and one interception. With the starters, he connected on all but one of his 10 throws.

"It really starts with just work, work and more work," said Towles, who still is locked in a three-way quarterback battle with Reese Phillips and Drew Barker.

"I feel like my drop, my feet have gotten so much better. My feet are fast. They were slow; then they were average; now they're fast. They're fast enough to make plays like I did today."

That combination of footwork and newfound (or re-found) confidence meshed perfectly in the final series of Saturday's first half.

With 53 seconds to go before the break, Towles put together a long drive to set up a 40-yard field goal for Austin MacGinnis.

Towles completed six of seven passes, including four straight, mostly on out routes to Demarco Robinson.

Those passes impressed Walker, not because of how fundamentally sound they were, but mostly because they capped a lackluster second quarter in which Towles was sacked three times on three different drives and picked off at the line of scrimmage by Za'Darius Smith.

"To be able to come back and respond and run the offense that efficiently, that quickly was good," Walker said.

Seeing Kentucky and its quarterback work through some adversity was the type of thing for which Brown had been waiting.

"We really struggled (last season) to overcome any kind of negative play, whether it was a sack, procedure penalty," Brown said the day before the spring game.

"We want our guys to feel confident, regardless of who they're playing, regardless of the situation, weather, where we're playing at, any of those things," he said. "We want our guys to walk out there and feel like we're going to score."

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

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