Spring practice is just around the corner and momentum is building for what might be the biggest Blue/White game in Kentucky history. Leading into the spring practice sessions, coaching and scheme changes have altered the landscape for several of the returning players, so for the next few weeks I’ll be breaking down each position group one by one to get a better idea of the roster. We’ll start with what might be the most heated offseason battle in UK history: the quarterbacks.
#11 – Maxwell Smith – JR – 6’4 / 225 – Granada Hills, CA
#13 – Jalen Whitlow – SO – 6’2 / 205 – Prattville, AL
#14 – Patrick Towles – SO – 6’5 / 245 – Ft. Thomas, KY
#10 – Jeff Witthuhn – RFR – 6’3 / 235 – Bowling Green, KY
Reese Phillips – FR – 6’2 / 225 – Signal Mountain, TN
A slew of circumstances has led to Kentucky having three quarterbacks with significant playing experience last season. Maxwell Smith will be a junior this fall (but might be granted a redshirt season for last year by the NCAA) and he has been excellent at times in his career. He has a big arm, and excellent accuracy, but his intelligence is what made him so good at times over the past two seasons. The downsides to Smith are his lack of mobility and his inability to stay healthy. He certainly has the tools to be great, but he will have to stay out of the trainers room and on the field if he’s going to win the job.
Jalen Whitlow is as intriguing of a quarterback as Kentucky has had in a long time. He didn’t even start at the quarterback in high school but injuries led to him starting several games at the position in the SEC as a true freshman. Whitlow’s most obvious strength is his mobility, but he also has a stronger arm than he’s given credit for. The problem Whitlow will face is his biggest question marks are decision making and accuracy, which are two BIG necessities in Neal Brown’s offense. If Whitlow can improve both from his performances as a freshman (which shouldn’t be hard), he can make some noise in the competition.
Patrick Towles was far and away the most highly touted QB recruit on Kentucky’s roster. He has NFL size and an absolute can on for an arm. His accuracy could use some improvement, but Towles showed glimpses of greatness at times, and looked like the injured true freshman he was at others. He has deceptive mobility, and by all accounts is a great leader with a good head on his shoulders. Towles probably has the highest ceiling of any player on the roster and his ability to do a little but of everything makes him a solid option at quarterback.
Witthuhn and Phillips are both talented athletes, but neither is likely to challenge the other three quarterbacks. Witthuhn could remain at QB or could be given a chance to move to tight end or even defense. Phillips is probably headed for a redshirt season while he transitions from a high school Wing-T offense to Neal Brown’s high octane attack.
Transitioning from Randy Sanders’ pro-style offense to Neal Brown’s Air-Raid scheme is a big one. For the quarterbacks, the change essentially puts all the players at square one as they learn the new offense and adjust their game accordingly. Each player brings a different skill-set and all can be valuable contributors, but accuracy and decision making will trump it all in the Air Raid.
I really like Whitlow as a player, but his accuracy issues will have to come a long way for him to be effective in this offense. If there is a read-option wrinkle in the playbook, he’s perfect for that scheme, but without seeing how much he’s improved since his freshman season, my guess is that he is moved to another position. Whitlow really struggled with simple throws and was dreadful when the defense brought even moderate pressure. He will have to have made some big strides to be a true contender at quarterback, but I think he’s too talented to not be on the field somewhere. Look for him to move to receiver where the Wildcats need help, and where his best chance for a NFL future would be. Witthuhn is a long-shot at best. I would be shocked if he were even listed on the three deep after the spring. Phillips is talented but raw and would be best suited with a redshirt season to allow him to adjust to the college game.
I really think that the starting job will come down to Smith and Towles. If Smith is fully recovered from his injury and shows off the accuracy and poise that made him look like a potential All-SEC during some of the games last season, he’ll be tough to best out. Towles will have to show that he has improved his accuracy and that he has a full understanding of the offense if he wants to unseat Smith. However, if he has improved and healed up over the offseason, he has the combination of skills that made him a Parade All-American only a year ago and he could be viewed as the future at the position for UK. I’m betting Towles has busted his butt this offseason, so for my first depth chart prediction, I’m calling for a big upset and Sophomore Patrick Towles to win the starting quarterback job.