UK Football

Mark Story: Kentucky needs to find its QB before next season begins

UK quarterback Maxwell Smith threw for 131 yards in the first half. The University of Kentucky Football team hosted the University of Tennessee, Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013 at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington. Photo by Jonathan Palmer
UK quarterback Maxwell Smith threw for 131 yards in the first half. The University of Kentucky Football team hosted the University of Tennessee, Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013 at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington. Photo by Jonathan Palmer Herald-Leader

The 2013 Kentucky football season began with uncertainty that lasted right up to the season's opening kickoff about who would start for the Wildcats at quarterback.

Mark Stoops' first season as UK head man ended in exactly the same place. Before the Wildcats' finale against Tennessee, the Kentucky coach told the UK Radio Network that Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow were "banged up" and "less than 100 percent."

"This will truly be a game-time decision," Stoops said of who would play.

It turned out, Smith got the start. Whitlow made a few cameo appearances for running plays.

And Kentucky's season proved one of football's oldest axioms: If you have two QBs, you really have none.

For the 28th time in the past 29 years, Tennessee beat Kentucky at football. This time, it was a 27-14 win for the Volunteers (5-7, 2-6 SEC) over the mistake-plagued Cats before a Commonwealth Stadium Senior Night crowd generously announced at 54,986.

UK's 16th straight SEC loss and its 18th defeat in a row against schools from BCS automatic-qualifying conferences was among its most frustrating. Seven times Kentucky (2-10, 0-8 SEC) drove the ball into Tennessee territory. Five times, those forays ended without UK scoring points.

Smith, whose season seemed largely sabotaged by chronic shoulder problems, completed 25 of 38 passes for 254 yards with no interceptions. He accounted for UK's two touchdowns on a 19-yard pass to Anthony Kendrick and 14-yard screen to Javess Blue. It was the most prolific passing game for the third-year sophomore since he threw for 310 yards in Kentucky's 41-7 victory over Miami (Ohio) in the season's second week.

Yet, even in a game where Smith performed well, we may have seen the toll the shoulder injuries that have plagued him during his Kentucky career have taken. At least twice, UK true freshman Jeff Badet got behind the Tennessee secondary on fly patterns. An accurate throw in either instance would have likely produced a Wildcats touchdown.

Smith's first throw was badly underthrown; the second floated and was overthrown. "There's plays out there, and we're not making them," Stoops said. "Passes are either just overthrown or just underthrown."

We don't need to call in passing-game guru Mike Leach to know that for the Air Raid offense Stoops and UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown want to run, Kentucky has to find one effective quarterback who can stay on the field.

"You saw the season, it's not ideal," Stoops said of playing multiple quarterbacks.

Before UK opens its 2014 campaign against Tennessee-Martin, the off-season figures to be dominated with quarterback talk.

Let's start now.

Even if his arm strength were to return or he were to get off-season shoulder surgery, Smith's durability would have to be a concern for the UK offensive brain trust in terms of going with him as the full-time starter in the future.

Whitlow would seem a far better fit in a run-oriented spread attack than a pass-happy one. He might have a role at Kentucky in 2014 as a Wildcat-formation QB and a Kordell Stewart-style "slash" performer if he were to embrace that.

Former Fort Thomas Highlands star Patrick Towles redshirted at Kentucky this season. The scuttlebutt is that the 2011 Kentucky Mr. Football's throwing motion may be a bit too elongated to thrive in the short-pass-heavy Air Raid system. Still, it will be interesting in spring football to see if Towles has improved his mechanics in his season off.

The "buzz" QB around the Kentucky program this fall has been true freshman Reese Phillips. The Signal Mountain, Tenn., product also redshirted this year but talk was he may be the quarterback in the program who best fits the system. Of course, caveat emptor, there's a long history at Kentucky of hopes being most fully invested in the QB no one has seen play.

Finally, Conner High School star Drew Barker is expected to enroll at UK in January and go through spring practice. Given Barker's ample recruiting hype, many of The Long Suffering UK Football Fans are already expecting him to immediately seize the Kentucky starting job.

Trying to start a true freshman against SEC defenses is usually a path to futility.

Quarterback uncertainty makes for a fascinating off-season. For Stoops and Brown to advance the UK program, it also needs to end before next season begins.

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