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By LARRY VAUGHT
LEXINGTON — He’s not ready to say who should be the starting quarterback, but even coach Mark Stoops could not deny that sophomore Jalen Whitlow did his best to stake his claim to that spot with his play in Saturday’s Blue-White Game.
“Jalen did a nice job. He has that dimension to run the football and pull it down and create,” said Stoops. “He did a nice job tonight. I was impressed with the way he played.”
Whitlow easily had the best numbers in his continuing battle with Maxwell Smith and Patrick Towles. He was 17-for-29 passing for 193 yards and two scores and ran seven times for 49 yards. He hit A.J. Legree with a 16-yard scoring pass and Demarcus Sweat with a scoring toss of the same distance.
Smith was 11 of 18 for 108 yards and one score while Towles was just 6-for-14 for 65 yards and one score, but he also threw the game’s only interception.
Stoops said he felt the quarterback play “was solid again” and that each player “had their moments” during the game that ended spring practice.
“It’s not always on the quarterbacks. It’s about the other guys with them,” Stoops said.
The head coach said he wants players “to feel good about themselves, but it can’t be fake” and Whitlow made it clear he felt good about his play.
“I think I have improved a lot and I think I showed tonight what I can do,” Whitlow said.
Offensive coordinator Neal Brown has said he won’t name a starter until midway of preseason camp, but Stoops acknowledged that Whitlow made an impression in this game.
“I think he has earned the right to feel good about himself,” Stoops said.
However, Whitlow faces the same challenge this summer that the other quarterbacks do. “They have to work. Get with receivers and get on the same page. They have to be leaders on the field,” Stoops said.
Stoops did admit that a player’s performance in this game would carry extra weight when it comes to the depth chart, which could benefit Whitlow.
“Under the lights in a game setting, you want to see how they respond, how they play. You need playmakers to make plays when the lights come on,” Stoops said.
The coach did not see nearly enough offensive playmakers, but he said part of that was due to splitting the squad and limiting the offense’s ability to play fast due to a lack of depth.
“You did not see our offense at full strength. Our tempo was not what it has been. Part of that is numbers and being thin when we split into teams,” Stoops said. “When they are all together, they play at a higher tempo.”
Stoops said current player have to improve their playmaking skills along with incoming freshmen providing help for the offense.
“We are going to work hard to get better with guys that are here,” Stoops said. “Our incoming guys are going to help us as well. Our players will get better. They have got better and we need them to get even better.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown thinks a “good crowd” at Saturday night’s Blue-White Game to end UK’s spring practice would help the Wildcats and also help him gauge how the quarterbacks play in a game-like setting.
“I think it will be good for our kids to see the fan base get behind them. I think it’s something they deserve. It’s our job once the fan base is there to keep them. We’ve got to put out an entertaining product, and I think more than anything we’ve got to play hard,” said Brown after Wednesday’s practice. “But you always want to see who performs when the lights go on. This is going to be the second time we went in that stadium. We performed well last Saturday. It’s my hope and my plan that we can finish this spring out strong and do it in front of a good crowd there Saturday night.”
Sophomores Maxwell Smith, Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles are battling for the No. 1 spot at quarterback that Brown says likely will not be settled until midway of preseason practice in August. He says their spring practice play has been much like the rest of the offense.
“We do some really good things, and there’s some things that are head scratchers. Some of that is we put a lot on them. Some of that is we’ve just got to focus better,” Brown said. “There’s some good and some bad. Really not much separation. Just when I think there is, the one I think is the bottom will have a good day. They’re coming along.”
Saturday’s Blue-White Game will be the last chance for each quarterback to leave a lasting impression with Brown and coach Mark Stoops before they can resume workouts with them again in August.
“It’s a last impression as a coaching staff, but it’s your first impression for the fans. I think that’s probably more important, really. I’m not going to treat it with any more weight than the first two scrimmages,” Brown said. “The reps have been about equal throughout. We’ll do the same thing in the spring game. Don’t get too caught up about who goes out there first, who goes out there second. We’ll probably flip a coin or something like that.”
Stoops emphasized again Wednesday that he has liked things he has seen from all three.
“I’ve said it over and over again and I still feel that way: The all have different strengths and they all can help us win,” Stoops said.
All three quarterbacks have stressed they have improved this spring and credit Brown for helping their footwork. Brown insisted that did not mean former UK offensive coordinator Randy Sanders did anything wrong technique-wise with the players last year.
“We’re a little bit more timing oriented. We’re in the shotgun more and there’s some things that are really important fundamentally as far as drops and things like that,” Brown said. “For instance, it may be three steps and a hitch because the receiver is running an 8-yard route. It may be three steps and hold because we’re running a crossing route. We don’t have time to step up. Every offensive system, your drops and your routes kind of match up with your protection.”
“There’s a lot of details other than just going out and playing throw and catch. There’s a lot of little things that go into being an accurate passer and that’s what we talk about: How can we be an accurate passer? Well, our lower body has got to be in a position to make us accurate. We’ve got to have our feet shoulder width apart. Our toes have to be to our target, OK? That’s a huge element and then another part of it is taking the easy throws. Another part of it is throwing to your running backs. Those are all things. I think people just look at stats and say, ‘Ah. Well, here’s the deal.’ But there’s a lot that goes into it.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Freshman quarterback Reese Phillips is never mentioned as a contender for the starting job at Kentucky but some who have seen UK practice have been very impressed with his play. Still, I thought he might have an interesting perspective on how Maxwell Smith, Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles are faring in the quarterback competition.
Question: How do you see the quarterback competition going?
Phillips: “One of the scrimmages I could sort of tell (who was on top). Honestly, every day it is someone different (doing best). That is what coach Brown wants is consistency and we really have not had anyone who is real consistent. We have guys — and I won’t say a name — who have real good days and then all of a sudden they fall off and then come back. In my mind, I sort of know (who will be the starter) but I can’t tell you for sure.”
Question: What is the biggest thing Brown is looking for in a starting quarterback?
Phillips: “Tempo. Decision making. That is pretty much it. We can all throw it. Everybody can at this level. But it is decision making and living with your decisions and don’t second guess yourself. And tempo.”
Question: Does the quarterback have a lot of freedom in this offense?
Phillips: “We do have a lot of freedom. When we run certain combos or stuff like that, we can decide about running or throwing. He never gets on to us about our decisions. He might say, ‘Maybe you should have done this,’ but he has never got on us about that.”
Photos by Clay Jackson, and property of Schurz Communications, Inc., and vaughtsviews.com. All rights reserved; images may not be reprinted in print or online without permission of the owners. Reprinted images must be attributed to vaughtsviews.com and linked to the original site.
By LARRY VAUGHT
If new Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown is right, it won’t take long for quarterbacks to learn his system.
“It’s really a simple system. The first three days of spring practice we’ll install the whole system. It’s a system that the quarterbacks will be able to learn in a two to three week period while I’m gone recruiting. They can watch some videos and really have a good idea of what we want to do when I get back,” said Brown Tuesday.,
Three days and have the whole system in? What a refreshing thought to hear a coach say it doesn’t take months and months to learn an offense. Remember how in recent years UK’s offense has been “limited” because coaches said they could not install the whole offense. With Brown, he says that will be no problem — and he’s had one of the nation’s more productive offenses at Texas Tech.
He played under Hal Mumme at Kentucky and coached under Tony Franklin at Troy. Brown knows the “Air Raid” offense — and is all for bringing the sirens back to Commonwealth Stadium he said if that helps produce touchdowns — and says long-time UK fans who watched Mumme’s teams will see familiar plays.
“The base plays that you’re going to see on Saturday afternoons, when coach Mumme was here, those base plays are the same. Those base plays are really the same that you’re seeing at West Virginia be highly successful. They’re the same plays we used at Texas Tech. Oklahoma State’s using those same plays. Oklahoma’s using those same plays,” Brown said. “Those same base plays really haven’t changed since 1997 when coach Mumme brought those to really big-time college football.
“Now what we’ve done is, is we’ve made a stronger – I guess we’ve made a more concerted effort to run the football is the best way to put that. We’re playing at a faster pace, and we dress those plays up with motions, with different formations. Those are the things that the fans are going to notice.”
Brown calls it a “good problem” to have three sophomore quarterbacks — Maxwell Smith, Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles.
“It’s a good situation. We’ve got three guys that can play quarterback in the Southeastern Conference. How we’re going to handle that is, it’s going to be an open competition. I met with those guys, I guess it was Monday of last week, and all three guys (are) good people, very interesting guys, excited about a fresh start,” Brown said. “And it’s going to be a fresh start, not only for them, but for all the guys on our whole football team. I’m only controlling the offense, but it’s a fresh start. The way we’re going to handle it, it’s going to be an open competition. All three guys will split the reps a third in spring practice, carry that competition through the summer into fall camp and see who the best man is.”
He doesn’t want to prejudge anyone, including his receivers.
“Really been focused more on the recruiting end than the current personnel. During this dead period in recruiting, I’ll probably start peeking at those guys (receivers),” he said. “I think you’ve got to be careful of not watching too much, because it’s a different system. You don’t know what the players, where they were at that point in their career and all those type of things, injuries. I’ll peek at them just to have an idea, but I’m not going to get carried away watching a whole lot of the last couple years.”
By ASHLEY SCOBY
If we know anything about the Kentucky football team this year, it’s that they were young. A good portion of this year’s freshman class (as well as redshirt freshmen from last year) played a significant amount. Jalen Whitlow, Khalid Henderson, Patrick Towles, Fred Tiller, Landon Foster – the list goes on of how many had their redshirts pulled this season.
AJ Legree could also be added to that list, although he didn’t play as much as anticipated. Former head coach Joker Phillips pointed to Legree and another freshman, Demarcus Sweat, as two youngsters that could contribute heavily in the receiving game this year. Sweat ended up sitting out the last two games of the season to focus on academics.
Legree, on the other hand, only finished with 12 catches for 113 yards in 2012. If you take out his three catch/47-yard performance against Vanderbilt in a 40-0 loss, he only finished with nine catches for 66 yards – not quite the season you would want to give up your redshirt for. But that lack of playing time only motivates Legree to push forward.
“Of course I wish I could have played more, but learning the offense, having to pick things up on the go, I think I did pretty good with that,” he said after the final game of the season, a 37-17 loss to Tennessee. “I think the coaches started to notice that I was working a lot harder and starting to pick the offense up, so they put me on the field when I was ready.”
Heading into an uncertain future for Kentucky football, Legree’s desire “just to get better, faster, stronger” in the offseason is an important attitude to have. Without a coach being named yet, it’s uncertain what kind of offense Kentucky will have next year. A spread attack? A focus on the running game?
Either way, Kentucky will be losing a good portion of its receiving yardage with the loss of La’Rod King, Aaron Boyd, Gene McCaskill and EJ Fields – the four seniors accounted for 897 of UK’s 2115 receiving yards this season. Another 355 of the 2012 receiving yards came from running backs Jonathan George, Raymond Sanders and CoShik Williams (only Williams graduates from the running back group).
It’s an open field next year for Kentucky’s young receivers. Losing a “go-to” guy like La’Rod King can motivate the younger guys to step into his shoes. It may be Legree that does that, or Sweat, or maybe even a true freshman coming in next year.
A crucial component of who steps up at receiver? Who is tossing the passes? Whether the mobile quarterback, Jalen Whitlow, or the traditional passing quarterbacks, Towles or Max Smith, are chosen by the new coaching staff to lead the offense is a mystery right now. Legree’s second biggest game of the year, however, came thanks to Whitlow.
“(The) South Carolina game, me and Jalen were able to hook up for a couple catches,” Legree said. “Me and Jalen are pretty cool. We hang out a lot. I just hope we can keep that bond going, and hopefully improve in the offseason.”
Whether it’s Whitlow, Towles or Smith throwing passes next year (or a combination of all three), Legree is looking to make more of an impact on offense. For a guy that averaged 9.4 yards a catch this year, that doesn’t seem too out of the realm of possibility.
By LARRY VAUGHT
Since he didn’t always see eye-to-eye with every offensive coordinator he had, former Kentucky quarterback Jared Lorenzen had no trouble sensing there was a disconnect between freshman quarterback Patrick Towles and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders and even coach Joker Phillips this season.
“I don’t think they got along really well. The coaching change can only be good for him,” said Lorenzen, who helped coach Towles at Highlands.
Towles, Kentucky’s 2011 Mr. Football, came to UK expecting to contend for the starting job. Instead, he quickly found himself taking snaps with the scout team and eventually was placed fourth on the depth chart by sophomore Maxwell Smith, senior Morgan Newton and fellow freshman Jalen Whitlow. Only when Smith injured his ankle in the fifth game and Newton was ineffective due in part to last season’s shoulder injury did Kentucky offer to let Towles play. He gladly gave up his redshirt year, but got hurt his first game after directing an 80-yard scoring drive on his first series.
He finished the season completing 19 of 40 passes in five games for 233 yards and one score with one interception. Whitlow played in 10 games and was 87 for 161 passing for 801 yards and three scores with two interceptions and ran for 206 yards and three scores. In three games, Smith threw for 975 yards and eight scores by completing 103 of 150 throws with four interceptions.
Lorenzen often disagreed with offensive coordinator Brent Pease during his time at UK under coach Hal Mumme. Then two even exchanged Twitter taunts before this year’s Florida-Kentucky game (Pease is Florida’s offensive coordinator).
“I don’t know what happened with Patrick and Sanders. Based on what I could see on the sidelines and the way they interacted — or didn’t interact — it was obvious something was wrong,” Lorenzen said. “It was like a bad couple relationship and now they are each going their own way.”
Lorenzen laughed he had one coordinator (Pease) meet him before he got off the field to point out his mistakes. However, he said he had not seen an offensive coordinator walk away from quarterbacks the way Sanders did at times when he would go to one 30-yard line and leave Towles and other quarterbacks at the other 30 after Towles came out of a game.
“Brent and I would yell and scream and then it was done. I never had a coordinator walk away from me,” Lorenzen said. “We never let it carry over to the next series. That’s not fair to the team and why I’ve never seen coaches at one 30 and the quarterbacks at the other 30.”
Last week Sanders said there was “no question who the best one is” when asked about the quarterback and said he would have a “hard time believing” Smith would not be the starting quarterback next year unless the new head coach has a different offensive philosophy than Sanders and Phillips.
While Sanders’ comment upset some, it did not bother Lorenzen.
“I was hoping Max would play this whole year and then have a competition with Patrick next year,” Lorenzen said. “Even if he had to sit behind Max a year or two, he could learn and come in after he leaves. That’s the way it works at most SEC schools. Max was playing really well before he was hurt. Now it will be a three-person race next year for anybody that wants the job. It’s just who steps up the fastest and how Max comes back from that ankle injury. As much of a Patrick fan as I am, I think Max deserves his fair chance next year based on what he was doing this year.”
If Smith had stayed healthy, Towles would still have four years of eligibility instead of three. Lorenzen thinks he may “regret” not redshirting even though Towles, who missed the second of Saturday’s loss to Tennessee when he was “dinged up” after a sideline hit, made it clear he wanted to play.
“I thought it would be best for him to redshirt, and told him that adamantly,” Lorenzen said. “He got in a half a game, then got hurt. He probably does regret playing to some extent. But he did get some good experience and there is nothing better than game reps. He did learn, but I still wish he had a full four years left.”
Can he be a high level SEC quarterback?
“I know he can. We have talked about it. I just told him to put his head down and go,” Lorenzen said. “Heal that ankle and make sure you get 100 percent. Take time off to do that.
“But nobody will go into spring practice with a new coach with the job. Now it is a fight with Jalen also definitely in the mix. But I have full confidence in Patrick that he can be a great SEC quarterback. Nothing that happened this year changed my mind about that,” Lorenzen said.
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky coach Joker Phillips says playing two true freshmen quarterbacks — Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles — against Mississippi State is going to be “exciting” for both teams.
“The team we’re playing has no idea what they’re about to get. We don’t know,” said Phillips.
That’s because UK won’t have sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith for this game or likely any more this season. Phillips announced Monday that he would need surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left ankle after he was hurt on the second play of Saturday’s loss to South Carolina. Smith missed the Florida game two weeks ago with a shoulder injury, but he had still completed 103 of 150 passes (68.7 percent) for 975 yards and eight touchdowns with four interceptions in three complete games.
“He’s down, obviously,” Phillips said. “He worked his tail off to be in the position to play major-college football.”
Whitlow took over for Smith against South Carolina and was 12-for-23 passing for 114 yards with two interceptions. He was also sacked seven times.
Towles, who led Highlands to three state titles and was Kentucky’s Mr. Football last year, was scheduled to be redshirted but Smith’s injury has forced Phillips to change that plan. Phillips said UK would “pull the redshirt off” and play Towles.
“We’ll have to play them both,” Phillips said Monday at his weekly press conference. “It’s going to take an effort of both of them. And it could be right in the middle of a series. It could be play after play after play, switching them out. We have to give them both things they can do.
Unbeaten Mississippi State leads the Southeastern Conference with nine interceptions.
Towles was a four-star recruit who threw for 3,820 yards and ran for 589 yards while accounting for 57 touchdowns his senior year. However, he’s been running the scout team offense after Smith won the starting job and senior Morgan Newton was named the backup with Whitlow No. 3. Newton started at Florida when Smith was hurt, but was ineffective and was not even mentioned by Phillips Monday.
“He’s in the meetings, pays attention in the meetings,” Phillips said. “We’ll see tomorrow exactly how much he knows and what he can do.”
Phillips said Whitlow originally was put ahead of Towles because he could “extend plays” with his running ability.
“Not saying that patty ice can’t (extend plays). He does move around some, but not as well as Jalen. Jalen was signed as an athlete. He should move around better. Patty ice is more of a pocket quarterback,” Phillips said.
Towles uses @patty_ice14 as his name on Twitter. Phillips said all Towles asked him was not to cal him “pattycakes” and later joked that “we have got to laugh” about a season that has UK 1-4 and now ready to turn the offense over to two true freshmen quarterbacks. Phillips later said he did not feel snakebit, either, because of the injuries.
“It is football. We understand that injuries come with it,” Phillips said.
One plus for Towles and UK could be that his style is more similar to Smith’s and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders designed the offense to suit Smith’s skills.
“We have got to tweak it to what he (Whitlow) can do and what the other guy (Towles) can do,” Phillips said. “He (Towles) is a little bit closer to Max than Jalen. Jalen is a guy that can run around and make plays and extend plays. Patty is a guy, I shouldn’t say Patty, who can sit in the pocket and complete passes.”
Phillips said he would definitely play both and that Whitlow likely would be the one to start Saturday depending on what play UK wants to open the game using. The coach talked to both Whitlow and Towles Sunday night after learning that Smith’s injury could be this serious before it was confirmed Monday that he would need surgery.
“He (Towles) came here to play, so definitely he is excited,” Phillips said. “We have been in close communication with him.”
Phillips said Towles’ biggest challenge will be the speed of the game even though he’s been going against UK’s No. 1 defense while running the scout team.
“He has not gone against a No. 1 defense in full speed when they are coming to sack you,” Phillips said. “The speed of the game will be the biggest challenge.”
Phillips also noted that even though he’s been facing UK’s No. 1 defense, Towles sometimes has to do what the play called for and has had no reason to read defenses or make adjustments while running the scout offense. However, Phillips has noticed one important thing about Towles.
“You see a guy that is really confident, a guy yelling and screaming trying to get the scout team jacked up. Now we need him to get our No. 1 offense on that level,” Phillips said. “He has been more vocal on the scout team. He has been around the guys more on the scout team and feels he is the leader of those guys. He’s been in the weight room with them and is comfortable with them. Now we need him to be with the ones. That is his personality. We need Jalen to do the same, but that’s not quite his personality.”
Phillips said Smith could be eligible for a medical redshirt season if he does not play again this year. If that happens, all three quarterbacks would be sophomores with three years of eligibility left in 2013. “It is best to play them all. It will work its way out,” Phillips said. “All we be sophomores with two having the chance to redshirt down the road if something happens.”
Phillips said Smith was playing at a “high level” before he was hurt. “Probably as high anybody I have been around at this phase of his career. Got to get the next two guys ready to play,” Phillips said.
Phillips said he paid more attention to Whitlow along the sideline against South Carolina than he did when he relieved Newton at Florida, and he liked what he saw. “He was as poised as I have ever seen a true freshman going in the game. He was able to give information back that we needed. He was seeing things well,” Phillips said. “Some motions, some shifts he struggled with at times. Those are things we might have to give up to let him play faster. Really liked what I saw in his eyes during the game.”