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By LARRY VAUGHT
While several people who got to watch Saturday’s scrimmage thought sophomore Maxwell Smith had a clear edge over senior Morgan Newton at quarterback, Kentucky coach Joker Phillips didn’t offer the same assessment.
“I think there was more good than bad, but the difference between quarterback play and offensive line or receiver, if you make a couple of bad plays then it really shows, and it’s the only thing people usually remember,” said Phillips. WWe have to make sure we’re playing clean all the time at that position. We’ll watch the film and see if it’s a big enough separation to make a decision.”
Phillips didn’t not compliment or criticize any quarterback by name. Freshmen Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow are also competing and did not wear the same jerseys as Smith and Newton. That meant they could have live contact, something Phillips wanted to see to gauge how they handled defensive pressure.
Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders was not as vague about the quarterbacks. He said Smith, the starter last year after Newton was hurt, has “really done a nice job” in the first week of practice and admitted that Newton’s offseason shoulder surgery had hampered him.
“Labrum surgery for a quarterback is like Tommy John surgery for a pitcher or ACL surgery for a running back,” Sanders said. “It’s not something that the doctors just one day say you’re better, and you go out there and you’re where you were before. It takes time to build up the strength, the muscle memory and a little bit just to get confidence in it.”
Yet Sanders said there’s no doubt that Smith and Newton are both well ahead of Towles and Whitlow.
“Sometimes they revert back to things they did as a sophomore in high school. You wonder, ‘What is that?’” Sanders said about the freshmen quarterbacks.
Towles was Mr. Football in Kentucky last year when he led Highlands to a third straight state title and thew only one interception all season. But Sanders says learning a college offense is a lot different problem.
“It’s a lot like learning a new language. He’s got a really good start on that. The biggest thing is the sheer volume of defenses he’s facing,” Sanders said. “He’s saw more defense in the plays he got today than he probably saw in the last four years of high school. Just trying to see all those things, digest them and then learn how to react with the new language he’s speaking, it takes a time.
“He can obviously throw the football. Sometimes he’s looking one way and throwing it to somebody when his whole progression is on the other side of the field and he should be working there. I think he can get there. Whether it happens in the next month or whether it happens in the next three months or whether it happens in the next two years, I don’t know. But he can get there. I can see that ability.”
Phillips says picking a No. 1 quarterback comes down to one thing.
“Who has the ability to get the team in the end zone? The older guys make it much easier for the other guys, but they also have to do their jobs. The younger guys have the ability to do things and make plays. They have the ability to get the team in the end zone, but the older guys are ahead at this point,” Phillips said.