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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 HAL MORRIS, Advocate-Messenger
Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown said the Wildcats may have their new offense in by the end of the week. But getting it down may take a while, and a lot of that will be on the players.
“We’ll have everything put in for the most part by Friday,” Brown said Wednesday after Kentucky’s second practice of the spring. “You’re not just going to go out here and be a winning team. You’ve got to prepare, and you’ve got to do a lot of it on your own time. Because the NCAA limits us and what we can do. So if you want to be a great player and create great teams, you’ve got to do a lot of it on your own. And we’re not there right now.”
“But Brown knows the Cats have the chance to be there, and he is trying to create an atmosphere at practice which makes the games seem much easier.
“What we’re trying to create in practice, we’re trying to create an atmosphere that’s way tougher than the game. So if I’m the quarterback, if they can execute with me one foot behind them, getting on them or being positive on every single rep, it’s the same thing as your on the first tee and you’re playing golf. You’ve got all these people (watching) and you’ve got to execute a good shot or you’re going to hurt somebody. So when they get in the stadium, it’s an easier atmosphere. And it’s the same with all the offensive guys.”
While the main focus of spring drills is trying to determine UK’s starting quarterback — Brown said he was not going to discuss that competition — who the quarterbacks will throw to is also key.
“We’re rusty. They haven’t put the ball in the air much as we do,” he said. “Demarco Robinson has had a great couple of days, you can tell he’s the most seasoned guy we have. The rest of those guys have to come on. They’re really young, they’re raw. We’re going to need those you guys we signed too. We’re going to need them from a depth standpoint. That’s one position group in the next 13 practices, they’ve got to get better.”
Brown pointed out that UK was 15 practices behind most SEC teams because the Cats did not make a bowl game lat season.
“So we’ve got to be doubly productive in our practices to catch up,” he said. “Our guys are trying hard, we’ve got the pieces I think. But the pieces we have have to get better. As long as they keep preparing and keep giving great effort, we’re going to have a chance.”
Brown said he would send out tweets (@UKCoachBrown) on who had good days in practice.
“While he would not speak specifically about the quarterback battle, he did say trying to get Maxwell Smith, Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow equal snaps was a challenge.
“It’s really harder on me because I’ve got to divide the reps. I’ve got to sit home and think about getting guys equal reps,” he said. “It’s harder on me than the skill guys, they have no idea who’s at quarterback.”
But, Brown said the battle between the three will make the quarterback position stronger.
“You get better by competition. We’ve got more competition at the quarterback position than any position on offense, maybe any position on defense,” he said. “So I think you’ll see the most improvement out of those three than the rest of the positions. I’d rather have a clear number one and we’re out getting 80 percent of the reps with the first guy, but that’s not the scenario. But we’ll figure out who it is, it probably won’t be until fall camp.”
By HAL MORRIS, Advocate-Messenger
Patrick Towles said everyone got a “clean slate” when the new Kentucky coaching staff came aboard. And he’s hoping that will give him his chance to show he should be the Wildcats’ starting quarterback this season.
“It’s what sport is all about. You want to come out here and prove to whoever you need to prove it to that you’re better and you deserve to play. And we’re all out here trying to show Coach (Neal) Brown and Coach (Mark) Stoops we deserve to play,” Towles said Wednesday.
“When a new staff comes in, everybody’s on a clean slate. Maybe whoever was on the bottom of the barrel with the old coaching staff is getting a new shot this year. I know a lot of people are excited about that, they get to start fresh.”
Towles is battling with Jalen Whitlow and Maxwell Smith in spring drills, and each is getting a chance to run with the first team.
Whitlow, who played in 10 games and was 87 of 161 passing for 801 yards and three touchdowns with two interceptions and ran for 206 yards and three scores last y ear, is glad to get his chance to show off for coaches as well.
“It’s fun, it’s fun. You see some pretty good quarterbacks and are competing against them,” he said. “I’ve always been competitive, I’ve always had to compete for my job, so it’s fun.”
Smith is the incumbent, having won the starting job last fall. He started the first four games and had completed 68.7 percent of his passes for 975 yards and eight touchdowns with four interceptions before suffering a season-ending ankle injury.
He said his ankle feels close to 100 percent this spring and said he’s ready to go “all out” every practice. But he admits it is tough to have to win the job again.
“It definitely stinks. I wish I could have played all of last season and gotten us some more wins. But there’s always a competition, I’m just ready to compete,” he said. “Just work hard every day, get better every day. I have to work hard every day and if I can do that, we’ll see what happens and hopefully I can win the spot. But as long as I’m progressing every day.”
One thing all three quarterback agreed is that they have to get used to offensive coordinator Neal Brown’s fast-paced offense.
“We’re starting a lot quicker, we’re starting to quicken everything up. The first couple of days are always going to be rusty no matter who you are,” said Towles, who 233 yards and a touchdown with an interception in five games. “But it’s starting to come together. We had a couple of plays today Coach Brown was talking about where we actually looked like a football team.
“We’re getting there, we have a lot of work to do. But it’s March, our first game isn’t until August. But we’re looking really, really promising. It’s definitely easier to understand, but the execution doesn’t make it any easier. You’re still going against SEC defenses, it’s still going to be hard to make positive plays and complete passes. It’s coming a lot quicker.”
Smith said everything about the offense is faster, but he’s loving the potential.
“I like it a lot. It’s fast, that’s the best word to describe it, it’s really fast,” he said. “Everything, we even practice faster, we practice at a very high rate of speed. We even get a little break in between because we practice so fast.”
Whitlow started at the end of the season after Smith and Towles were lost to injury. He is hoping that experience will pay off as the spring progresses.
“I just tried to come out there and do my best. I kind of got thrown to the fire, and I think I got better as the season went on so I think it’s the whole confidence thing,” he said. “Get that down and your body will take over.”
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 LARRY VAUGHT
At the end of his freshman season under coach Bill Curry, quarterback Tim Couch was frustrated that the offense did not suit his passing skills. Then UK fired Curry, hired Hal Mumme and Couch blossomed into the first overall pick in the NFL draft.
Could that same type of transformation be in store for Patrick Towles under new UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown after Towles never seemed to click with offensive coordinator Randy Sanders last year when he was a freshman?
“It is a fresh start for everyone on the team,” Couch said. “I think it is a chance to prove yourself all over again. Whatever perception the old staff had of you and whether that be good or bad, you have to prove yourself to this staff coming in.
“For Patrick, he was a guy who was highly recruited and a lot was expected out of him coming into this program. Listening to Mark (Stoops) talk and who he is going to bring in as an offensive coordinator … he talked about throwing the ball a lot and getting guys spread out and putting the excitement back in Kentucky football. If I am Patrick, I am pretty excited about playing for Neal Brown.”