John Clay

John Clay: Better to get QB quandary right than to pick starter too soon

From left, University of Kentucky quarterbacks Drew Barker, Reese Phillips, Patrick Towles and Maxwell Smith practiced Monday.
From left, University of Kentucky quarterbacks Drew Barker, Reese Phillips, Patrick Towles and Maxwell Smith practiced Monday. Herald-Leader

So why hasn't Kentucky named a starting quarterback?

After all, doesn't offensive coordinator Neal Brown need his starter to receive the most repetitions possible before the Aug. 30th opener against UT-Martin?

"It's really hard to figure out," UK head coach Mark Stoops said Wednesday. "I've opened up practice for you, and you saw two full practices — two or three. But with all the practices, it's the same thing. I just don't want to make a decision when I'm not ready, when we're not ready."

Plus, it isn't as if Stoops and Brown are choosing from a pair of experienced candidates. The quarterback derby contains four entries. The one with the most experience, Maxwell Smith, is coming off shoulder surgery that has limited his practice time.

Meanwhile, the other three candidates possess negligible experience. Redshirt sophomore Patrick Towles received a taste of college football in 2012. Reese Phillips is a redshirt freshman. True freshman Drew Barker is in his first college training camp.

Watching Monday and Tuesday's open practices exposed another major complication. All have different strengths. All have different weaknesses.

Towles, the starting quarterback in the spring game, is big and strong with a big, strong arm. But can the former Highlands star consistently make the short, quick throws required by an Air Raid offense?

Phillips can make those throws. The former Chattanooga prep star seems closest to the necessary consistency. But can Phillips make the deep throws needed to stretch a defense?

Then there's Barker, the former Conner High School star, heralded recruit and persuasive recruiter, who came across as the face of the program in that UK football commercial that ran during the Super Bowl.

Barker is an athlete. He can move and throw. He doesn't shy away from attempting the type of high-risk, high-reward throws you need to make if you really want to get somewhere in the college game.

He is also brand new to everything. That was evident Monday when Barker would follow an impressive pass to the correct target with a wild delivery in the direction of, well, you couldn't be sure. The life of a freshman.

"Every time you think you might be close to making a decision," Stoops said, "maybe someone has a real good practice or that guy doesn't do as well."

All three young quarterbacks will improve, but how much and in what areas? The coaches can't just judge what they see in practice; they must project what they might see down the road.

"It factors in," Stoops said when asked about upside. "One of the reasons why we're trying to be very critical of ourselves in making the decision is because it's so important. When we give that person the reins, we want them to go. ... Once we give them the keys to the car, we want them to drive it."

Isn't it safe to assume the quarterback who gets those keys has the opportunity to drive the offense for a long time? How much does that figure into the decision?

"I think you've got to look at putting ourselves in the position to win games right now," Stoops said. "Whatever happens from there, we'll see."

Barker appears the toughest call. He has the physical skills you would look for in an SEC quarterback, including obvious leadership ability. There has to be at least the temptation to go with him now as a bet on the future.

Or maybe not. There also has to be the temptation to shield Barker from being a true freshman quarterback in the nation's toughest conference. A redshirt year would give him time to mature so he is ready when opportunity knocks.

Bottom line: If the decision were easy, Stoops and Brown would have announced it already. Not only is it difficult, it's important. Better to take your time and get it right.

Said Stoops: "We'll get it figured out."

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