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By LARRY VAUGHT
Quarterback Jalen Whitlow has a “dinged up shoulder” and a continuing sore ankle, but Kentucky coach Mark Stoops insisted Monday that he “should be fine” for Saturday night’s game against Alabama State.
“He’ll be sore. He’ll be out there practicing today,” said Stoops Monday. “He should be fine.”
However, who would play if Whitlow is hurt and/or ineffective remains a bit of a mystery after Stoops confirmed that true freshman Reese Phillips has moved ahead of sophomore Patrick Towles, a former Kentucky Mr. Football.
Stoops said that Phillips, who has not played this year, will get “some reps in practice” this week. Stoops did not mention Maxwell Smith, last week’s starting quarterback at Mississippi State when Whitlow was slowed by an ankle injury. Whitlow and Smith have battled for the No. 1 spot since spring practice, but Stoops said “I don’t know” when asked if Phillips would be UK’s second or third option at quarterback this week.
“We’ll work on it this week. He’s definitely going to be an option,” Stoops said.
That sure sounds like if Smith does not have a good week of practice and Phillips does, then Phillips likely would be the backup Saturday and could well get into his first game at UK even though the plan has been to redshirt him. It could also signal that Towles has to rethink his future at UK — something that never seemed possible when he was the marquee recruit in UK’s 2012 recruiting class after his storied prep career — because Whitlow, Smith and Phillips could all be back next year along with recruit Drew Barker.
Stoops said Phillips has done a “nice job of managing the game” from his play in the Blue-White Game to end spring practice to every scrimmage he’s been in.
“If nothing else, if we get ourselves with certain plays and checks and run‑pass options, if we just execute the call, we give ourselves a chance. We’re not even doing that at times, and that’s frustrating, let alone throws or different things,” Stoops said. “It’s just putting ourselves, putting our team in a position to be successful with decisions. I think he does a nice job of protecting the football, and I think he does a nice job with his decision making.”
Offensive coordinator Neal Brown has been looking for consistency play after play from a quarterback — and has not got it yet this season.
“He’s a true freshman, and we have other options. He didn’t get as many reps all along, but he has gotten reps and he has been impressive. We keep on waiting, and you know that; we all do. We wait for our other quarterbacks to take it and run,” Stoops said. “I think Jalen has been there. I think Jalen is the guy that has been very close to leading us, and then we get an injury and set us back, and that can’t happen.
“We’ve just got to stay healthy. We’ve got to be stronger, we have got to protect him better, and if he does go down we’ve got to be better prepared for somebody else to lead us.”
Stoops clearly wants to see Whitlow take charge at quarterback, something he seemed poised to do with his play against South Carolina before injuring his ankle against Alabama. Whitlow told UK coaches he felt “gimpy” warming up for Mississippi State, but at halftime Stoops went to him to see if he could not play — and he did.
“I see it as a guy that’s leading the program in the SEC and I see other SEC players banged up and leading their team to victory, don’t you? That’s what we need to do,” Stoops said.
The Kentucky coach admitted there was a “fine line” between being injured and playing through pain and that he does not ever tell a player he should be playing.
“But if somebody is sore, then yeah, I’m going to challenge them. If somebody is —‑they (medical personnel) make all those decisions. I can’t get into that,” Stoops said. “But yes, we have to learn to differentiate between being injured and just being a little bit banged up. That’s for the players and for the trainers to decide. But if they can go, they need to go.”
Stoops noted how South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw twice has been injured but each time came back to play, including Saturday at Missouri when he rallied South Carolina to a comeback victory.
“It’s up to the players, and they have to decide what they can handle, and our medical people do a great job. But I think that toughness comes from a culture, and we’re trying to build it,” Stoops said. “I don’t think we’re there yet, and we’re going to get there. I can promise you.”
But while he’s mulling who the backup quarterback will be and if Whitlow and others can play with toughness, he is seeing signs his team is maturing.
“I think I saw a group that was hurt after the game (at Mississippi State) that they know — the more you invest, the more it should hurt, and I think our team is starting to hurt,” Stoops said. “They’re starting to understand that we can do this. If we, again, just do some things better, control the things we can control, and execute in some critical situations. I think they see us looking like an SEC football team at times. We’re just not consistent.”