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From the moment he stepped on campus, Jalen Whitlow told anyone that would listen that he was a quarterback, not just a versatile athlete who could fill in at quarterback.
He was a three-star recruit out of Prattville, Ala., who was not a full-time quarterback in high school but helped his team win a Class AAAAAA state championship. Yet he played 10 games at quarterback for Kentucky last year, including seven starts. He completed 87 of 161 passes for 801 yards and three scores while rushing for 206 yards and three more touchdowns. His best game came against Tennessee when he was 29-for-45 fo 225 yards and a score.
Now he’s in a three-way battle with fellow sophomores Max Smith and Patrick Towles to be offensive coordinator Neal Brown’s starting quarterback on Aug. 31 when UK plays Western Kentucky in Nashville.
“I feel like some people still won’t accept me yet as a full-time quarterback, but that’s not my job to try and impress anybody,” said Whitlow. “I am just going to go out here and do what I do. I know what I need to work on. I think I have made it clear I can play the quarterback position.
He says he is “night and day better” than he was at this time a year ago when he was not expected to move ahead of Smith or Towles.
“Just knowing more, more focused. Last year we were all over the place as a team. We have a goal in mind and know the steps to get to that goal,” Whitlow said. “I think the main thing is just be the leader, make the plays you are supposed to make, stay within the offense, do what you are supposed to do, stay disciplined. Those are the main things it takes to be the No. 1 quarterback. And have fun. Try not to get caught up in the competition and do what you have been doing since you were 5 years old.
Whitlow was 17 of 28 passing for 193 yards and two touchdowns in the Blue-White Game to end spring practice and also ran for 49 yards and one score, easily the best numbers any of the quarterbacks had.
“Being an accurate passer is part of being a good quarterback. You have to be accurate or lose. I have got better at that,” Whitlow said.
He likes Brown and calls him a “focused, nice guy” who has a solid offensive plan.
“He is humble and is everything you want in an offensive coordinator. He knows what he wants and shares his goal with us. He jokes but we do get down to business pretty quickly,” Whitlow said. “I think any offense is really good for a quarterback who can also run and make plays, but with his spread you really have guys spread out and that creates a few more running lanes than the offense had last year.”
When Whitlow found out Brown was coming from Texas Tech to UK after Mark Stoops was hired as head coach, he immediately “got online and looked him up.” He liked the production he saw from Brown’s past quarterbacks and their records and statistics.
“I found out that he wins everywhere he goes. His offense, his quarterbacks produce everywhere he goes. That is a good thing, and he’s a good guy,” Whitlow said. “It is basically the same offense I have ran since ninth grade, same read option, passing the ball. I had these same plays, or a lot of them, in high school. It’s pretty much the same thing. Just get familiar with the offense, but my game won’t change.”
That’s why he didn’t do anything special over the summer.
“I just put my head down and tried to work on what I needed to work on. Nothing special, just traditional quarterback drills, studying. Just lot of traditional work to make myself better.”
Whitlow also watched the way freshman Reese Phillips worked over the summer — and liked what he saw.
“Reese can throw the ball really well. I think a lot of people are sleeping on Reese. He can throw the ball and do things. In my opinion, he’s a great quarterback. He has a chance to be pretty good,” Whitlow said. “His attitude is good. He is not going to talk a lot. He’s going to get his work done. He is going to do what he is supposed to do. That’s who he is, and what I like.”