By LARRY VAUGHT
The first word Kentucky offensive coordinator Randy Sanders used to describe freshman quarterback Patrick Towles Tuesday was “rusty.” Towles got the clearance to return to practice after injuring his ankle Oct. 6 during a loss to Mississippi State when he made his first appearance of the season and led UK on an 80-yard scoring drive on his first series. However, four plays later he sprained his ankle.
He had been scheduled for a redshirt season until starting quarterback Maxwell Smith was lost for the season with an injury and Towles practiced with the first team for the first time the week of the Mississippi State game.
“It’s easy to forget when he got hurt against Mississippi State that was really his first week of not being down running off cards on scout team. It was good to have him back out there (today),” Sanders said after Tuesday’s practice. “It was good to have him in the huddle just making the calls. I liked the way he handled things at the line of scrimmage and all that, but it’s pretty obvious that he’s rusty and needs work.”
The coach said it was hard to tell how his ankle actually was.
“He had so much tape on it, I don’t know. He got along OK today, but between the tape and the air cast and the high-tops (shoes), it would’ve had a hard time rolling over,” Sanders said.
Sanders did say Towles seems to understand the playbook better after spending last week studying it even when he could not play and that could enhance his chances of playing Saturday at Georgia.
“Understanding it on paper or understanding it in the meeting room or on film is still a whole lot different than executing it. I do think he’s put in a lot of effort in staying into it mentally,” Sanders said. “I tried to coach him just as hard while he was hurt as I was while I was trying to get him ready (to play). So I do think he is further along, but still executing it on the field, the fast pace, we’ve got to work on that.”
Kentucky’s passing game has struggled since Smith’s injury against South Carolina other than the one series Towles had where he was 5-for-5 on the scoring drive. Towles was a pure dropback passer at Highlands, something freshman quarterback Jalen Whitlow was not.
“He (Towles) threw the ball a lot (in high school) and he’s used to being in the pocket and seeing things. He’s not quite used to the speed of the rush. He’s not quite used to the speed of the routes or the defenders and how fast windows close, but he does have more reps in the passing game,” Sanders said. “And the thing he can do, he can throw the ball. There’s no question. Just getting him to throw it to the right guy all the time, that’s the biggest challenge.”
Whitlow has been the starter the last three games and played most of the game against South Carolina after Smith was injured early in the first quarter. Sanders thought he did “OK” in last week’s 29-24 loss to Georgia.
“For where he is, he didn’t have any major mistakes we had to go through from that game, didn’t have any turnovers. He didn’t have any mess-ups with communication, formations. He didn’t forget any motions or anything like that,” Sanders said.
He did miss the third quarter because of a migraine headache.
“I think that’s something that our trainers have to be prepared for, our doctors have to be prepared for. To me, a migraine’s no different than a sprained ankle or a broken shoulder pad buckle or something like that. They can happen at any time. You’ve got togo play the game and if it happens, you try to address it.”
Kentucky went with senior quarterback Morgan Newton as a red zone quarterback last week and twice he got UK into the end zone — once running, once passing. But if Towles is able to play, that could impact Newton’s status as the Wildcat quarterback inside the 20-yard line.
“Morgan still brings something into the equation for us. Having Jalen have the ability to step back and see things from the sideline I think has helped him. How much Morgan factors in is a little bit dependent on how Patrick’s ankle is. It’s hard to play three guys, but at the same time you can do it if you need to in special situations,” Sanders said.
Another problem Saturday could be that Missouri is averaging 8.5 tackles for loss per game.
“They’re good. They have a good front. They’ve got a lot of experience on defense. Their linebackers seems … they’ve been there a long time, seen a lot of football. They’re good players. Their front is good,” Sanders said. “It’s going to be a big challenge for us. It’s going to be a huge challenge to run the ball and there’s no question we’re still going to have to execute in the passing game. We’ll have to do a good job in protection and have to make some plays down the field.”