UK Football

Cats expect freshman QBs to create excitement 'one way or the other'

Freshman QB Patrick Towles threw a pass during drills at UK's fan day in August. Towles, who was Kentucky's Mr. Football at Highlands last season, will see his first collegiate game action on Saturday against Mississippi State.
Freshman QB Patrick Towles threw a pass during drills at UK's fan day in August. Towles, who was Kentucky's Mr. Football at Highlands last season, will see his first collegiate game action on Saturday against Mississippi State. Herald-Leader

The two Kentucky quarterbacks who will take the field at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday are less than five months removed from their high school graduations.

It's something offensive coordinator Randy Sanders will have to tell himself constantly this week as he prepares a UK offense without Maxwell Smith, who could be sidelined the rest of the season after ankle surgery on Tuesday.

"They did all right," Sanders said of quarterbacks Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles' practice performances on Tuesday. "We set a new record for knucklehead calls a couple times. ... But they understand for the most part what to do. Now actually doing it is the next thing."

Whitlow and Towles will get a crash course in the Kentucky offense this week, Towles even more so because he's been working with the scout team since the start of the season. Whitlow has been getting second- and first-team reps since early September.

Each worked with the first- and second-team offenses on Tuesday, but Sanders said he hasn't decided how he will go about playing Towles and Whitlow.

Sanders does know both freshmen will play against No. 20 Mississippi State (4-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) on Saturday.

"It'll have to be a rotation because I can't get either one of them ready to do the whole thing," the offensive coordinator said.

Does Sanders have a plan for how and when they will play?

"I have thoughts in my head, but a lot of it's going to be determined on how they practiced obviously today, tomorrow and then again on Thursday," he said. "And not only how they practice, but the answers they give me in meetings, how they respond."

At practice on Tuesday, Sanders played each quarterback until he "messed up" and then the other one filled in.

"So we had a little bit of a rotation that way," he said.

The speed of the game presents issues for both players, their coaches said.

"On the board, they can tell you what they're supposed to do and what everybody's supposed to do," Sanders said. "But when it starts happening fast, and you have 2.5 seconds to get back there, read the defense, make the decision, get the ball out of your hand, while avoiding the rush or finding a lane to throw it through, that's their challenge."

Coach Joker Phillips said as much on Monday when asked about the challenges Towles, the 6-foot-5, 242-pound Mr. Football from Highlands, will face on Saturday.

"It's definitely going to be a lot faster than he's used to," Phillips said. "He hasn't gone against the (first-team) defense in full speed, you know. They're coming to sack you. ... So I mean the speed of the game will be his biggest challenge, and understanding it."

Dealing with the closing speed of defensive backs could be crucial against Mississippi State, which is second in the nation in interceptions with nine, including two taken back for touchdowns.

Remember that in his senior season at Highlands, Towles completed 171 of 279 passes (61.3 percent) with just one interception.

For Whitlow, who got 65 snaps in last week's loss to South Carolina after Smith went down, there was a bit of a slip in what he had shown in practice.

But that's to be expected, Sanders said.

At the end of the season, UK has a file of plays that are "so screwed up that you don't even recognize them," Sanders said. "We've got several plays that went in that file from last game."

Interestingly enough, Kentucky had three third-down conversions on those plays, two on improvised scrambles and another on a tipped pass that landed in receiver Daryl Collins' hands next to the sideline.

This isn't the first time Sanders has had to prep a freshman for the top spot. He did it last season when Smith was called up after Morgan Newton injured his shoulder.

"The difference was Max had had an extra spring practice, because he'd come in early," Sanders said.

But the no-huddle offense, expressly installed for Smith's accurate, quick arm, could make the transition easier for the other two quarterbacks.

"It's a little bit easier on them to not have to understand so many things," Sanders said. "We fix a lot of problems for them from the sideline. We did that for a while with Max (last year), but we couldn't do it quite as easily as we can now."

Replacing Smith is going to be difficult but not impossible, Sanders said.

"We lost a guy that can make everybody's job a little easier, lost a guy that can erase some mistakes," Sanders said. "But these guys can erase mistakes in their own way. It'll be exciting. It will be exciting, one way or the other."

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