UK Football

Summer a critical time in Kentucky QB race

Kentucky's quarterbacks went through drills in practice in March. It's the drills in May, June and July, when the coaches aren't watching, that will be crucial in naming a starter in the fall.
Kentucky's quarterbacks went through drills in practice in March. It's the drills in May, June and July, when the coaches aren't watching, that will be crucial in naming a starter in the fall. Herald-Leader

All spring, Kentucky's football coaches discussed the three quarterbacks in generalities, more as a collective unit than as individuals vying to run the offense.

There were no hints about whether Maxwell Smith was picking up the new offense fastest or if Patrick Towles was throwing the most accurate passes or if Jalen Whitlow was better in the huddle.

But more than a week after the Blue-White Spring Game, new coach Mark Stoops admitted there was a front-runner in that race.

"It's very fair to say Jalen had the best spring game and did some awfully good things," Stoops said on the Southeastern Conference coaches teleconference Wednesday.

Of course, that doesn't mean Whitlow will be guiding the offense when the Cats take LP Field for their season opener against Western Kentucky on Aug. 31.

"It's still an open competition there," Stoops said of the quarterback race.

What Whitlow showed in the spring game on April 13 was the ability to make plays with both his arm and his feet.

The sophomore from Alabama, who took over the starting job last fall after Smith went down with an ankle injury, led the Cats on three touchdown drives in the spring game. He completed 17 of 28 pass attempts for 193 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran seven times for 49 yards.

Smith completed 11 of 18 passes for 108 yards, including a game-long 47-yarder to Demarco Robinson late in the game. Of the 14 passes he threw, Towles completed six for 65 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

One good spring game does not a starting quarterback make, though. And UK's coaches made it clear that the race likely will go into the first two weeks of fall camp.

It will be important for all three sophomores to improve over the summer. Even though coaches aren't allowed to watch summer workouts, offensive coordinator Neal Brown said it will be clear early in the fall who made a leap.

"I'll be able to tell how they work and stuff when they get back in the fall," Brown said recently. "The thing that you can really work on in the summer is you can really work on your accuracy. You can really work on your drops, your feet and your accuracy during the summer. I think it's huge. Really for our whole football team, when we get done, May, June, July is going to be crucial."

Summer could provide even more separation or close any gap created in the spring game.

"Those guys are going to have to work, to be leaders this summer and get the receivers out here," Stoops said after a recent practice. "These guys have to work on their own. We expect them to do that and we'll see the results when we get back out there in the fall."

After his first full spring as a head coach, Stoops said he was optimistic.

"I felt like things went well," he said. "I was impressed with our players, felt like they had a great attitude and were there embracing the process. So I was really happy with ... the way they were going about their business."

Looking for help

The quarterback race wasn't the only topic Stoops discussed during the spring SEC teleconference. The head coach was asked what immediate needs Kentucky has now that he's had time to evaluate the team.

There's no short answer.

"Obviously, we need help at every position," he said. "We need to improve across the board, but what stands out to me right now is the skill positions, both on offense and on defense. We need to get a lot better in the secondary and we need to get better at wide receiver."

When asked what recruiting needs UK would try to fill with the 2014 class, those skill positions came up again.

"We need help across the board, but we need to continue — it's hard to say, because we need help everywhere — but we certainly need some help in the skill positions like I mentioned," Stoops said. "I think really at defensive back and wide receiver, we really need to upgrade there."

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