UK Football

John Clay: Kentucky quarterbacks deserve do-over amid season of injuries, follies

Kentucky quarterback Maxwell Smith watched most of the South Carolina game from the sideline after injuring his ankle early in the first quarter. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Kentucky quarterback Maxwell Smith watched most of the South Carolina game from the sideline after injuring his ankle early in the first quarter. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

When it comes to the daily update on the Kentucky quarterback situation, the sport's most important position has produced more twists and turns than an episode of Breaking Bad.

Pun intended, considering all the bad breaks.

Let us review.

Twist: Impressed by sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith's accuracy and quick release, offensive coordinator Randy Sanders devises a no-huddle, short-passing attack that will take advantage of the Californian's strengths.

Turn: Smith starts the season's first three games and throws for nearly 1,000 yards by completing nearly 70 percent of his passes. His team loses one (at Louisville), wins one (Kent State) and rallies to send one into overtime (Western Kentucky) before losing.

Twist: Smith takes a hard Hilltopper hit on the same shoulder he injured a year ago at Georgia. By the time the Cats head to Florida for their first SEC game, Sanders and Coach Joker Phillips opt for safe over sorry and decide to hold out Smith.

Turn: Morgan Newton gets the start in The Swamp. Even by the senior's own frank admission, things do not go well. Florida gets 38 points. Kentucky gets blanked.

Twist: After being pronounced fit (almost) and starting the next game against South Carolina, Smith lasts all of — drum roll — two plays. The sophomore suffers an ankle injury that puts him in the locker room and his foot inside a protective boot.

Turn: True freshman Jalen Whitlow takes over and leads UK to a 17-7 halftime lead.

Twist: South Carolina has enough time at intermission to realize it is South Carolina and Whitlow is a true freshman. The Gamecocks rally for a 38-17 win.

Turn: Phillips announces that Smith will undergo (probable) season-ending ankle surgery for a torn ligament and thus the redshirt will be yanked off former Highlands quarterback Patrick Towles, who will share the position with Whitlow for the Mississippi State game.

His very first series, Towles leads UK on a touchdown march in which the rookie completes five of five passes, including the touchdown strike.

Twist: Two series later, Towles tries to escape a Mississippi State pass rush and suffers a high ankle sprain. He, too, returns to the sideline in the team's fall fashion look — a protective boot and crutches.

Turn: By the process of elimination, Whitlow is the team's starter as the Cats head to Arkansas.

Twist: A twister doesn't descend on Fayetteville, but two separate storms visit Reynolds Razorback Stadium. The game is finally called with Arkansas leading 49-7 and five minutes remaining in the third quarter. Whitlow's confidence suffers wind damage.

Turn: The coaches come up with another plan, this one featuring the veteran Newton as a spot reliever and red-zone quarterback. UK scores a first-quarter touchdown against Georgia and trails by just two points, 16-14, at the half.

Twist: In the second half, Whitlow is spotted by himself on the UK bench, a towel draped over his lowered head. Word comes the Alabama native is suffering from a migraine headache.

Afterward, when asked for his reaction when told of Whitlow's condition, Phillips said, "You've got to be kidding me."

Turn: Phillips announces Monday that Towles has been cleared to practice. On Tuesday, Sanders reports that Towles is "very rusty" but that the quarterback did practice and could be in the rotation Saturday at Missouri, along with Whitlow and Newton.

An intrepid reporter asks the veteran offensive coach whether he has ever, in all his years of coaching, seen a season at the position like this one.

Sanders says that when he was at Tennessee in 2004, the Vols ended up starting three quarterbacks — Brent Schaeffer, then Erik Ainge, then Rick Clausen — by the time the campaign ended.

And yet even that merry-go-round year in Knoxville didn't compare.

Said Sanders, "Not quite like this."