If the Kentucky football season started Saturday, Morgan Newton would be the Wildcats' starting quarterback.
And when the Cats open the 2011 season against Western Kentucky in September, Newton, in all likelihood, will be the starter. Not only will he be the only Wildcat with starting experience under center, but the off-season transfer of Ryan Mossakowski left Newton as the only QB ever to take a snap in a college game.
Newton won't be able to get too cozy in the driver's seat, however, because the UK coaching staff is high on true freshman Maxwell Smith.
Smith, an under-the-radar recruit who enrolled in January, participated in five practices during UK's preparations for the BBVA Compass Bowl and made an impression on Coach Joker Phillips and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders.
"We really liked what we saw out of Max in those bowl practices," Phillips said. "There'll definitely be a competition at that position, and we expect Max to push Morgan."
Sanders believes that Smith has the size (a legitimate 6-foot-4 and a sturdy 225 pounds), the arm strength and the work ethic to eventually become a successful Southeastern Conference quarterback.
"The ball comes out of his hands good," Sanders said. "That's the best thing he does and the best thing you see on film. It all comes down to whether he can see things, think fast and react to what he sees. So far, I'm really encouraged by what I see."
Kentucky had its first practice of the spring Wednesday, and Smith didn't have the typical deer-in-headlights look that most freshmen have. He wasn't flawless, but he got the Wildcats in and out of plays and hit receivers when they were open.
"I was pleased with him and how much he knew," Phillips said. "The guy's only been here for five practices and a half a semester, but I was pleased with his understanding of the offense."
In addition to his winter-conditioning work with strength coach Rock Oliver, Smith put in countless hours studying the playbook, going out and doing extra throwing with the receivers, breaking down film and getting tips from former UK quarterback Andre Woodson, now a student assistant on Phillips' staff, about his mechanics and quickening his delivery.
"The fact that he was able to get in there and call the plays right in the huddle, and know what to do with it and not look like a complete lost child in high weeds speaks volumes for his work so far," Sanders added.
Smith said the preparation he's put in since enrolling two months ago had him feeling confident going into the spring.
"I'm definitely not lost; I feel really good," he said. "There was a lot of stuff going on in my head. I just wanted to come to the line and get the play right, get the play off, and don't turn the ball over. I've been studying the playbook a long time. But Coach Sanders warned me that they're going to be throwing more stuff at me every day as far as recognizing coverages and blitzes. I want to make sure I'm ready for it."
For all the gushing about Smith, he was only a two-star prospect out of Van Nuys, Calif., whose only offers were from UK and Sacramento State. But Smith was stuck in an option offense for most of his high school career before transferring from Mission Hills Alemany to Lake Balboa Birmingham, which featured more of a passing offense. He threw for 2,450 yards and 22 touchdowns with just two interceptions in his lone season at Birmingham.
"People just overlooked me," Smith said. "I don't believe in all that star stuff, Randall Cobb was a two-star coming out of high school and he's on the verge, hopefully, of being a first-round draft pick. Yeah, I did slip through the cracks but I'm hoping to prove people wrong."
The fact that Smith will be able to get in a winter-conditioning session, a spring practice, and a full summer should at the very least prepare him to be Newton's backup.
"I think it would have been tough for any freshman coming in the fall, but it's especially tough for a freshman with all the things they have to know, so it's been great for him," Phillips said.
"It makes it difficult to be in position to play early in the year unless you get a spring under your belt," Sanders said. "The best thing about spring is he'll find out what he needs to work on going into the summer and can apply in the fall."
And while Phillips and Sanders are happy with what they've seen of Smith so far, they also pulled off the gas a little bit, reminding everybody that Smith is still a freshman quarterback trying to make it in the brutal SEC.
"It's not how you react when things are right, it's how you react when things go wrong, and you'll never know that about a kid until you get in those live-game situations," Sanders said.
"He's still got a long ways to go," Phillips said. "I'm not going to anoint him today, but we are pleased with the way he picked up things."