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By LARRY VAUGHT
Who’s going to start at quarterback for Kentucky when the Cats open the season Sept. 2 at Louisville? That’s the question UK fans want answered — and most already have their answer — and the question UK coach Joker Phillips has to find a quick, and right, answer to not long after preseason camp opens Friday.
Former Kentucky quarterback Andre Woodson, now a graduate assistant on the UK staff, was at the Governor’s Cup press conference here Thursday. I asked him who would be starting — even though I knew he could not really give a specific answer.
“I don’t know yet. We have to see where (senior) Morgan (Newton) is with his shoulder. He has been doing a wonderful job trying to come back (from his injury) and really get his strength back and compete,” said Woodson. “We have heard great things about what (sophomore) Max (Smith) has been doing this entire offseason. It is going to be a battle. I think we are definitely encouraged by the fact that we have two really good quarterbacks that are going to battle it out and that will make each of them better and the team better.”
If anyone can be sympathetic to Newton’s plight, it is Woodson. Remember he started his sophomore year and then appeared to lose his starting job to Curtis Pulley in spring practice. However, Pulley had some off-field issues that vaulted Woodson back to No. 1 and he flourished his last two years at UK and led the Cats to bowl wins both seasons.
Newton started eight games as a freshman when Mike Hartline was injured, was a backup to Hartline as a sophomore and had trouble moving the team last year as a starter before suffering a shoulder injury that elevated Smith to No. 1.
“I think he has done a great job handling it obviously. For him being that young and having to go through the obstacles he has gone through, it is very challenging,” Woodson said. “I think he has handled it and he has to continue to build on that. With everything he has gone through and he is still in the conversation (to start) and with as hard as he has worked, my hat is off to him.
“I am very encouraged and eager to see what he is going to do during the training camp. Usually guys that work that hard, special and great things happen for them because they are willing to do whatever it takes to be the starting quarterback or be successful for the program and those guys win.”
Woodson says no matter how hard Newton may have tried, he had to have heard the criticism from fans and media members last season. He knows because he heard the same chatter about himself after his sophomore season.
“It is difficult not to listen. I can’t say it is not,” Woodson said. “It is challenging to really block everything that you are hearing from outside. It is hard to block all that out. The one thing you can tell Morgan is it doesn’t matter what other people say and think. The only thing that matters is what your coaches and teammates think. You have to do the best job you can preparing and getting ready for the upcoming season so that way the rest of the team will believe in you the same way.
“As long as he does that and takes care of business, there is no telling what will happen. but he has to do a good job of blocking all that out. It is very challenging and very difficult, but the type of kid Morgan is, I think he can do that and overcome that.”
Can he? I don’t know but if there’s anyone who should know it is Woodson. He was by no means the overall fan favorite to be the starting quarterback going into his junior season before he got the job and then put his name into the UK record books, so if he says Newton could do the same thing, it tells me to pay close attention to what could be a terrific preseason quarterback battle at UK.