Maxwell Smith throws a pass in practice as UK's other quarterbacks look on. (Photo by Jon Hale)
After just more than two weeks of fall camp, UK’s starting quarterback competition has ended where it started.
Sophomore Maxwell Smith, who started three games at the end of the 2011 season before missing the season-ending win against Tennessee with an injury, will start the Wildcats’ opener against Louisville on Sept. 2, head coach Joker Phillips announced Monday. Smith took all the first-team snaps in spring practice but was listed as a co-starter with senior Morgan Newton, who was rehabbing from shoulder surgery, in the post-spring depth chart.
“I think Max had the upper hand with getting all those reps in the spring too,” Phillips said. “That had a lot to do with it. You saw him getting more comfortable with every snap he got, seeing a little bit more of it in this fall camp. We just felt like he was the guy that gives us the best chance to win.”
Smith appeared in eight games as a true freshman in 2011. On the season, he completed 84 of 153 passes (54.9 percent) for 819 yards. He threw four touchdowns and four interceptions.
Smith made his first start against Mississippi on Nov. 5, 2011, and started the next two games against Vanderbilt and Georgia. In his three starts, Smith completed 51 of 101 pass attempts (50.5 percent) for 595 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions. UK was 1-2 in those games.
While Smith showed glimpses of promise as a freshman, he thinks he is much improved since the last time UK fans saw him on the field.
“I might have thought I knew the playbook last year like I told you guys, but I know the playbook now,” he said. “I really do know it.”
A shoulder injury hindered Newton toward the end of his junior year, but he elected to delay surgery until after the season ended in case UK needed him in emergency action. After undergoing shoulder surgery following the end of the season, Newton missed all but non-throwing drills during spring practice.
Newton has appeared in 23 games with 17 starts in his three-year UK career. He entered the 2011 season as the starter and completed 83 of 174 passes for 793 yards, eight touchdowns and seven interceptions. All but two of his pass attempts came in the first eight games before he lost the starting job to Smith. In his career, Newton has thrown for 1,764 yards, 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Newton said practice was difficult at times this fall while coming back from the shoulder injury, but he was happy with his performance. While he and Smith were officially informed of the decision Monday morning, Newton said he has suspected for a few days.
“It didn’t surprise me,” he said. “The writing was kind of on the wall a little bit.”
Newton returns to the backup role that he has held for parts of his first three seasons at UK. As a sophomore, he spent the entire season backing up then senior Mike Hartline.
“People will start liking me again as the backup,” he said “That’s just the nature of the business. It’s the SEC. It’s a tough league. There will probably be opportunities.”
Smith and Newton were not the only candidates in the quarterback competition. A pair of highly touted freshmen — Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow — were also given chances to win the job.
Towles was the 2012 Mr. Kentucky Football, Gatorade Kentucky Player of the Year and Paul Hornung Award winner at Highlands High School in Fort Thomas. He was the highest rated signee in the 2012 UK freshmen class at four stars, according to Rivals.com.
Rivals.com rated Whitlow as a three-star athlete as a senior at Prattville High School in Alabama. Whitlow played both quarterback and wide receiver as a senior, helping to lead Prattville to a six-A state championship and top-25 national ranking.
The two freshmen are still competing for the No. 3 spot on the depth chart, but Phillips said a decision for that spot is still probably a couple weeks away. Last week, Phillips said he would like to redshirt the fourth quarterback if injuries do not force him into action.
With the quarterback decision out of the way, Smith and the rest of the UK offense can focus on preparing for the season opener against Louisville. The first two weeks of camp have given them a leg up in that quest, Smith said.
“This competition made us better, I can tell you that,” he said. “We’re definitely further along than we were last year.”
During UK’s fall football camp, KyForward sports editor Jon Hale will be providing a position-by-position look at some new faces and storylines to watch for the 2012 UK football season.. Previous stories in the series include features about the quarterbacks, defensive linemen, tailbacks, wide receivers, linebackers and tight ends.