UK Football

Mark Story: Jalen Whitlow dashes to the front of QB race

UK quarterback Jalen Whitlow scrambles for yardage in the first half. The University of Kentucky hosted its Blue/White Spring Scrimmage  Saturday, April 13, 2013 at the Commonwealth Stadium. Photo by Jonathan Palmer
UK quarterback Jalen Whitlow scrambles for yardage in the first half. The University of Kentucky hosted its Blue/White Spring Scrimmage Saturday, April 13, 2013 at the Commonwealth Stadium. Photo by Jonathan Palmer Jonathan Palmer

Throughout Kentucky football spring practice, offensive coordinator Neal Brown has refused to handicap the three-man race to be the Wildcats starting quarterback.

Yet after the first Blue-White Game of the Mark Stoops coaching era, it was hard not to think that one contender had, at the very least, put in a big claim on the starting job.

For many, the name of that contender will come as a surprise.

Making plays with his arm and his feet, sophomore quarterback Jalen Whitlow threw for two touchdowns and engineered scoring drives that produced three TDs and a field goal before a large crowd estimated (and pretty accurately, it appeared) at 50,831 in Commonwealth Stadium.

Oh yes, the Blue Team nipped the White 24-23.

Not that it mattered.

What did matter was the strong effort by Whitlow.

"Jalen did a nice job," Stoops, the new UK head coach, said. "He gives you that extra dimension to run the ball, pull it down and create. I was impressed with him."

For the game, Whitlow — a 6-foot-2, 208-pound sophomore from Prattville, Ala. — finished 17-of-28 passing for 193 yards without an interception. He also ran seven times for a net 50 yards.

"I thought I played OK," Whitlow said. "I gotta get better. Just little things like (pass) drops, footwork in the pocket, little things."

Maxwell Smith, who began last season as the UK starter and played well before being knocked out by injury in the season's fifth game, went 11-of-18 for 108 yards with one TD and no interceptions.

"Maxwell had some bad luck tonight," Brown said. "He had some (passes) dropped. He had some guys who ran wrong routes on him. That's not all on him."

The third man in the QB battle, Patrick Towles, the Kentucky high school legend from Fort Thomas Highlands, struggled. Towles finished 6-of-14 for 35 yards with a touchdown pass and an interception.

"OK," was Towles self-assessment of his performance. "There were some really good things, also some not-so-good things. For me, like I've said before, it all starts with my feet (in his throwing motion). Once I get to June, I think I'll have time to really work on that. You don't even need a football to get that fixed."

A season ago, after starter Smith was knocked out with an ankle injury, the relatively unheralded Whitlow was pressed into duty as a true freshman and started the final seven games.

He had some good moments (first half against South Carolina, Tennessee game) but, overall, struggled — as one would expect of a true freshman in that situation. For the season, he completed only 54 percent of his 161 pass attempts.

When Stoops hired Brown to re-install a version of the old Hal Mumme Air Raid at Kentucky, many assumed that Whitlow was destined to eventually be moved to wide receiver.

But Brown said the quarterback's strong Blue-White game was simply a continuation of what has been a rock-solid spring practice.

"He's done well now. He really has," Brown said. "He's come a long way as a passer. The ball's come out of his hands nicely. He's learned how to prepare. Getting thrown to the fire it does one or two things for you: It either damages you or you really find out what it takes and you come back stronger than ever. That's what happened with him."

Still, Brown said he would know more about how all three UK QB aspirants played after he graded film of the spring game. "This thing will probably go into the fall even," he said.

One thing there is no uncertainty about after Saturday evening's Blue-White Game is the enthusiasm the hiring of Stoops, Brown and staff have brought to Kentucky football. If accurate, the crowd of 50,831 was larger than the actual attendance of any UK game in 2012's dispiriting 2-10 season. It is far-and-away the largest gathering ever for a Kentucky spring game.

"A great night for the program," Stoops said. "(I) really appreciate the fan support, just an unbelievable atmosphere."

After his stellar effort in the spring game, Whitlow seems more than a viable candidate to be the Kentucky starting QB when UK faces Bobby Petrino and Western Kentucky in what is a must-win season opener for the Cats Aug. 31 in Nashville.

Of course, in 2006, Curtis Pulley came out of the spring looking like the Kentucky starting quarterback only to see Andre Woodson outwork him over the summer and reclaim the job.

So stay tuned.

Still, for one night, Jalen Whitlow was the story of the UK QB battle.

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