UK Football

Mark Story: Patrick Towles is UK's 'comeback kid' — before he's even started a game

Kentucky's newly named starting quarterback, Patrick Towles, threw a pass during Monday's practice.
Kentucky's newly named starting quarterback, Patrick Towles, threw a pass during Monday's practice. Herald-Leader

In our age of unrelenting recruiting hype and instantaneous Twitter judgements, Patrick Towles is example A of the modern rush to judgement of college athletes.

The ex-Fort Thomas Highlands star has already been the savior of the Kentucky Wildcats football program.

Then, he was a puzzling disappointment.

Now, he is UK football's comeback kid.

All of this before Towles has begun his sophomore year of eligibility.

Mark Stoops ended months of speculation Monday, using Twitter to announce that Towles had emerged on top in a three-man battle with redshirt freshman Reese Phillips and true freshman Drew Barker to be UK's starting quarterback.

"I have a lot of confidence in Patrick," Stoops said after Kentucky's Monday practice. "He's worked extremely hard."

I would have loved to share Towles' thoughts with you on his selection, but on the day UK named him its starting QB, it did not make him available for comment.

Before analyzing the pros and cons of putting Towles in the cockpit of the Air Raid offense, let's salute the fortitude that the one-time Kentucky high school icon showed in fighting through early career adversity to claim the UK starting job.

When Towles and his four recruiting stars signed with Kentucky in 2012, a restive fan base had a flickering belief in the Joker Phillips coaching regime.

Towles was a hero riding to the rescue. He came to Lexington after quarterbacking Highlands to three straight state championships and earning 2011 Mr. Football honors. In his senior season at Highlands, he produced an insane 42-to-1 touchdown/interception ratio.

Yet, at UK, Towles not only failed to oust incumbent Wildcats starter Maxwell Smith, he also got beaten out by a far less heralded incoming freshman quarterback, Jalen Whitlow. When Smith got hurt, it was Whitlow who wound up starting eight games in 2012.

Before the 2013 season, Stoops replaced the fired Phillips and chose ex-UK wideout Neal Brown to install a pass-happy offense. Many thought a new Air Raid would be a boon for Towles.

Instead, Towles was again beaten out by Whitlow and Smith.

The buzz coming out of the UK football camp last fall was that Towles' throwing motion was too elongated to make the quick throws necessary in Brown's offense. Word was Towles lacked the consistent accuracy on short passes that is the main requisite of an Air Raid QB. By the end of 2013, it appeared that then-true freshman Reese Phillips had also moved ahead of the redshirting Towles in the UK QB hierarchy.

Given the level of expectation he brought to UK, no one would have been surprised had Towles, grandson of Baseball Hall of Famer Jim Bunning, transferred.

Instead, Towles buckled down.

"What he did — and it took him a little bit to get to this point — is he basically looked himself in the mirror," Brown said Monday. "(He) said, 'What I'm doing off the field, what I'm doing on the field, is not good enough for me to be the starting quarterback at the University of Kentucky. So what can I do to change that?'"

Towles hired a private quarterback coach, Donny Walker, who worked with the 6-foot-5, 238 pounder to streamline his throwing mechanics.

The result of that extra work is that Towles will be the starting QB when the Cats kick off 2014 against Tennessee-Martin.

Is it the right call for Kentucky football?

Phillips, the Chattanooga product, has been praised by UK coaches for his accuracy and decision making. He may have been the safer choice.

Barker, the Conner High School alum, was the face of Kentucky's ballyhooed 2014 recruiting class. To my highly untrained eye, he looked the sharpest last week of the QB aspirants in two Kentucky open practices. He would have been the bolder choice.

The word emanating from the Kentucky camp this fall is that Towles' more efficient throwing motion has allowed him to make quicker throws and decisions. The need for consistent accuracy in the short-passing game, however, is said to remain a work in progress.

That's the risk in choosing Towles.

"This wasn't a one-day decision, this wasn't a fall camp (decision)," Brown said. "This was going back (to) January all the way through (the present). We felt like Patrick gave us the best opportunity going into the UT-Martin game."

No one has ever questioned Towles' arm strength. He should give Kentucky a chance to stretch the field that could open up both the short-passing and running games for the Cats.

"Patrick can make all the throws," Stoops said. "He's improved on his release. He's much quicker getting rid of the ball, and that improves his decision making. And that's the biggest area of improvement for him over a year (ago)."

However the decision to start Towles plays out, it was easy Monday to feel good for the once-massively hyped QB recruit who has now taken a big step on "the comeback trail" — before he has started one college game.

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