If you want to know how well Patrick Towles has played in his first three career starts as Kentucky quarterback, here's a strong indicator: When Mark Stoops met the media Monday to preview UK's matchup with Vanderbilt on Saturday, it took 19 questions before anyone inquired about UK's QB.
Even then, it was to ask about the redshirt sophomore's leadership skills, not his performance. "Patrick has been very good for us, very solid, very vocal," the Kentucky coach said. "Players have a lot of trust in him."
In UK's equal parts frustrating/encouraging 36-30 triple-overtime loss to Florida in The Swamp two weeks ago, Towles made two of the best throws I've ever seen a Wildcats QB make.
On a third-and-16 from the UK 1-yard line, the 6-foot-5, 238-pounder threw a laser over the middle to Garrett Johnson for 22 yards.
The second pass was a deep crossing route to Ryan Timmons on UK's final drive of regulation. The Kentucky quarterback dropped a perfectly placed ball in between defenders — only to see Timmons deflect it into the air and set up a Keanu Neal interception.
Towles' strong early-season performance made me curious how his first three career starts in Neal Brown's Air Raid 2.0 offense stacked up against the original UK Air Raid quarterbacks — Tim Couch, Dusty Bonner and Jared Lorenzen — in their first three games running Hal Mumme's pass-happy attack.
A compare and contrast among the four QBs yields some surprising numbers.
First year running the Air Raid: 1997
Passing numbers through three games: Completed 99 of 143 passes for 1,081 yards with 15 touchdown passes versus two interceptions. Completion percentage of 69.3.
Team reliance on the pass: In the first three games of the original Air Raid, Mumme had Couch pass on 64 percent of Kentucky's offensive plays.
Team record: 2-1 (beat Louisville and Indiana; lost at Mississippi State).
First year running the Air Raid: 1999.
Passing numbers through three games: Completed 92 of 133 passes for 1,089 yards with 12 TD tosses versus three picks. Completion percentage of 69.2.
Team reliance on the pass: Kentucky threw the football on 55.1 percent of its plays in its first three contests.
First year running the Air Raid: 2000
Passing numbers through three games: Completed 85 of 139 throws for 1,043 yards with eight TD passes against four interceptions. Completion percentage of 61.2.
Team reliance on the pass: Over the season's inaugural three contests, Mumme had Lorenzen throw on 64.5 percent of UK's offensive plays.
Team record: 2-1 (lost at Louisville; beat South Florida and Indiana).
First year running the Air Raid: 2014
Passing numbers through three games: 61 of 105 for 916 yards with five touchdown passes against three interceptions. Completion percentage of 58.1.
Team reliance on the pass: So far in 2014, Kentucky has thrown on 45.5 percent of its offensive plays.
There are two areas where Towles has, so far, proven to be a very different model of Air Raid QB. Buoyed by the 22 times he ran the football against Ohio, he's rushed 34 times on the season. With a net 111 yards rushing, Towles is UK's second-leading rusher.
Conversely, in the Mumme days, Kentucky QBs rarely left the pocket except on scrambles. At this point in their first seasons as Air Raid quarterbacks, Lorenzen had run 16 times for 43 yards. Bonner (32 carries, minus-14 yards) and Couch (10 carries, minus-64 yards) were both in the red as rushers.
As a passer, Towles has so far been less accurate than his Mumme-era predecessors but has also shown a greater ability to drive the ball down the field. Going into the Vandy contest, Towles is averaging 15 yards per completed pass. That is significantly more than Lorenzen (12.2), Bonner (11.8) or Couch (10.9) in their first three contests.
It's a small sample, but Patrick Towles is navigating a unique route for an Air Raid QB at UK.