Mark Story

Mark Story: Maxwell Smith fighting not to be "forgotten man" of Kentucky quarterback race

Quarterback Maxwell Smith, with fellow QB Patrick Towles in the background, threw a pass during UK's practice on Monday.
Quarterback Maxwell Smith, with fellow QB Patrick Towles in the background, threw a pass during UK's practice on Monday. Herald-Leader

Maxwell Smith might still be in college, but he is settled on a long-term career plan. The goal is to coach football in the Southeastern Conference.

"I can't wait to coach," Smith says. "I really do want to coach in the SEC."

If you attended Kentucky's open practice Monday, you might have thought that Smith is already coaching. During a pass skeleton drill, he barked instructions to get true freshman tight end Darryl Long to move to the proper spot. At other times, UK's most experienced quarterback could be seen sharing information with the younger QBs competing for the Wildcats starting job.

Smith is trying to return from off-season shoulder surgery on his throwing side (the right). All three of his prior UK seasons have seen him miss time due to injuries. For those reasons, there has been a perception that Smith's role in 2014 will be that of a wizened Yoda for the other Kentucky quarterbacks — redshirt sophomore Patrick Towles, redshirt freshman Reese Phillips and true freshman Drew Barker — rather than the starting QB himself.

However, Smith does not sound resigned to being more mentor than player. "If I didn't think I had a chance (to be the starter), I might as well quit right now," Smith said Friday at UK football media day.

Smith's star-crossed UK career has been a throwback to what in the 1970s and '80s was a discouraging Kentucky football trend — the quarterback of promise whose career was sabotaged by injuries.

The potential of the Granada Hills, Calif., product was such that former Kentucky offensive coordinator Randy Sanders once said "Max has as much arm talent as any quarterback I've ever worked with."

Sanders, you'll recall, coached Peyton Manning at Tennessee.

A junior in eligibility, Smith is the only scholarship QB on the Kentucky roster who has ever started a game (he has 11 starts, including a 30-13 victory over SEC foe Mississippi in 2011). He's also the only UK signal caller to have thrown for more than 300 yards in a college game (he's done it three times).

After the first three games of the 2012 season, Smith was the Southeastern Conference's leading passer (322 yards a game).

Yet he's never been able to stay healthy. Smith's 2011 ended due to an injury to his throwing shoulder at Georgia. The following year, his shoulder flared up and kept him out of Kentucky's game at Florida. He came back in the next contest against South Carolina only to suffer torn ligaments in his ankle that sidelined him for the year.

Last season, Smith should have been perfect for the short pass-happy attack that UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown brought to Lexington. Early in his Kentucky career, the quarterback's calling cards were a quick release and accuracy on short and intermediate throws — exactly the qualities most needed in the Air Raid.

Instead, shoulder problems hampered Smith throughout 2013. His throws lacked the accuracy and zip they'd had before. Understandably, the QB looked as if his chronic injury problems had affected his psyche.

"I was playing with a bum shoulder the whole season," Smith said. "... There was pain when I threw. I knew something was wrong with it, but I just wasn't going to have surgery in the middle of the season. I wanted to be there for my team even though it was painful."

Smith's off-season surgery meant he did not participate in spring practice, giving Towles, Phillips and Barker the proverbial leg up in the quarterback battle. In the first days of camp this month, Smith was restricted to throwing every other day. He said Friday that he believes that restriction will be lifted this week.

"I feel good," Smith said. "(My arm strength is) coming back. Who knows if it will ever be back to what it was before I hurt my shoulder my freshman year? But I think I can still make every throw and make throws needed to play in the SEC."

Given his injury history, it's hard to see how Kentucky's brain trust can risk counting on Smith as its 2014 starter.

Sounding every bit like a future SEC coach, Smith says if the call by UK's Stoops and Brown doesn't go his way, he will handle it.

"If it doesn't go my way, then I've just got to eat it," Smith said. "I've got to say 'Hey, you look at the stats and maybe (the named starter) was better than me.' Hopefully, I'm the (starter.) But if that's not the case, I've just got to accept it and keep working hard."