What seemed most likely settled was made official on Monday when Coach Joker Phillips named Maxwell Smith Kentucky’s starting quarterback for the season opener at Louisville on Sept. 2.
“He’s the guy who gives us the best chance to win,” Phillips told a huge contingent of media at the Nutter practice fields.
“Max had the upper hand getting all those reps in the spring,” Phillips said. “It had a lot to do with it. You saw him getting more comfortable with every snap he got.” Smith won the fall camp battle over former starter Morgan Newton, who had surgery on his throwing shoulder during the off-season.
Coaches told the two players their decision in the morning. Smith, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound sophomore from Granada Hills, Calif., was his usual laid-back self as he met with the media for the first time this fall.
“That’s what I’ve been working for since I was a little kid, to get a job to start on an SEC team,” said Smith, who finished last season throwing for 819 yards and four touchdowns, completing 84 of his 153 pass attempts.
“It might not have been SEC at the time — you know I’m a West Coast guy; it might’ve been Pac-10 at the time — but I’m glad to be where I am.”
Smith seemed ready to take charge of an offense that sputtered and stalled many times last year. UK’s 259.8 yards per game last season were better than only two schools in the nation. Only six schools averaged fewer passing yards (135.6).
Will the offense improve?
“Definitely. Definitely,” senior wide receiver La’Rod King said. “No question at all. Guys are flying around; they know what to do. Everybody’s minding their P’s and their Q’s, and I love it. I love where we are right now. I feel like we’re farther along than we was last year.”
The players and coaches also noted the level of confidence that comes with having Newton (who has started 17 games at quarterback), as a backup should anything happen to Smith.
The decision put Newton in a familiar role as the backup quarterback. As a sophomore, he lost the starter’s job to previously injured Mike Hartline.
“People will start liking me again now that I’m the backup,” Newton said with a sly smile. “That’s just the nature of the business.”
The senior said he wasn’t shocked by the decision.
“It didn’t surprise me,” he said. “The writing was kind of on the walls a little bit.”
Newton, who passed for eight touchdowns and 793 yards last season and ran for 272 yards and two scores, went out with the hurt shoulder versus Mississippi State late last season, making room for Smith to take over.
As a true freshman, Smith completed 26 of 33 passes for 174 yards in that game.
He won his first college start against Ole Miss a game later; he threw for a freshman-record 283 yards and two touchdowns in the come-from-behind victory over the Rebels.
As a freshman, Smith played in eight games last season, starting three.
At the time, the quarterback said he felt good about his knowledge of the offense, but Monday, he conceded that he didn’t know much.
“I might’ve thought I knew the playbook last year and told you guys,” Smith said. “But I know the playbook now. I really do know it.”
Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders laughed at that assessment.
“He’s still wrong, but the nice thing now is at least he knows what he didn’t know,” Sanders said with a smile. “There is still more for him to learn. He’s worked very hard at it and he’s so far beyond where he was. Last year I used the analogy that we were teaching him Algebra I. Well he’s way beyond that point, but I don’t think he’s quite into the (trigonometry) part of it yet.”
Ultimately, it didn’t take a mathematician to know that Smith would be the starter after his impressive spring and solid fall.
After the scrimmages, especially after reports that Smith piloted a 98-yard scoring drive on Saturday, it became obvious that he was the Cat quarterback.
“He moved the offense,” Sanders explained of the decision-making process. “The offense was pretty productive when he was in there. That’s what we’ve said all the time: Whoever gives us the better chance to score points and win games will be the guy.”
As for who will be “the guy” who backs up the second guy (Newton), it remains to be seen. Neither freshmen Patrick Towles nor Jalen Whitlow separated himself enough in fall camp to take over the No. 3 spot.
“We’re not ready to make decision; we don’t have to at this point,” Phillips said. “We have a couple weeks before we line up to play, and also those guys need a couple more weeks.”