UK freshman quarterback Patrick Towles had no shortage of accolades before arriving on campus.
As a senior at Highlands High School in Fort Thomas, Towles was a Parade All-American, Kentucky Mr. Football, Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year, Paul Hornung Award winner and three-time state champion. He was the most highly touted member of the 2012 UK recruiting class, and UK head coach Joker Phillips has repeatedly said Towles will be given every chance to play as a true freshman.
Perhaps it was no surprise then that when players were released for interviews during UK’s media day Friday, it was Towles who drew the biggest crowd.
“Pressure from the media really has no bearing on what happens on the field,” Towles said. “I’m not really worried about it to tell you the truth.”
Patrick Towles (Photo from UK Athletics)
But what do his veteran teammates — specifically senior Morgan Newton and sophomore Maxwell Smith, who are competing with Towles for the starting quarterback job — think?
“I just look at it like, ‘that’s kind of the way it is,’” Smith said. “I feel like I got a lot of attention coming in as a freshman. All freshmen will. Hypothetically, we could get the No. 1 quarterback in the country next year, and obviously you guys are going to talk to him and then maybe not Patrick as much or something. That’s just the way it is.”
Newton acknowledged that he will use the attention Towles has received for motivation.
“I think you kind of have to take it as a challenge,” he said.
While Towles represents the young hotshot on campus pushing for their jobs now, both Newton and Smith are not far removed from being in that position themselves.
In 2009, Newton played in eight games as a freshmen and started the last seven games of the season. Last year, Smith also played in eight games as a freshmen and started in three.
“I was Patrick Towles three, four years ago,” Newton said. “Max was. (Mike) Hartline was. Andre’ (Woodson) was. Everybody…Randall (Cobb).
“You got to just take it in stride. I wish Patrick the best, and I’m going to help him as much as I can.”
The attention given to Towles on media day was intensified because it was the last availability for freshmen until after the season opener and last availability for quarterbacks until Phillips names a starter.
Phillips hopes that decision doesn’t take long.
“I wish the decision was already made,” he said. “It’s not. The reason it’s not is because of the competition that we have here. Patrick Towles figures into this. He figures into it a lot.”
Smith and Newton are listed as co-starters on the post-spring practice depth chart, but Phillips said Smith would get the first snaps in practice.
Both veterans are taking a philosophical approach to the competition.
“When it comes down to it, you’ve just got to try to control the things you can control,” Newton said. “Do your job. I think that’s something everybody can take. Just really be the best player you can be, and it will help us.”
“I’m just coming in every day, working hard, being a leader on and off the field, whenever I can be,” Smith said. “Just be a leader. I love competition.”
And do they think Towles can realistically compete for the starting job?
“Yeah, and I expect Jalen (Whitlow) to be there too, to be honest with you,” Smith said. “I expect to get competition from all those guys. They worked real hard this offseason. They did a real good job of asking me to come in and watch film with them, and I was happy to do that.”
Jalen Whitlow. (Photo from UK Athletics)
Whitlow is another freshman, who Phillips says will get a look at quarterback this fall. He is more of a running threat than the other quarterbacks and could be used in a wildcat formation role.
“I think the one thing that people are overlooking (with Towles) is we’ve got another quarterback too in Whitlow who is just as good,” Newton said. “A guy that can really play, and who is really sound. He’s a sharp guy.”
Whitlow is already used to Towles’s shadow.
“I know he’s from Kentucky. He won Mr. Football here and everything,” Whitlow said of Towles. “He’s a good quarterback, but I just go out there do what I can and work hard, do what the coaches tell me.”
Both Towles and Whitlow face a tough task in adjusting from high school football to the level of play in the Southeastern Conference. Newton and Smith both have first-hand experience in that struggle.
“I think obviously the offense is much more complex and the defense is much more complex,” Newton said. “One thing that helped me was I was physically ready to play. That obviously is something that helps.”
“It’s very difficult,” Smith said of playing as a freshman. “I learned that last year. It’s just so much different. Those top teams in the country — South Carolina, Georgia, LSU — we play are extremely fast, and it’s just something you can’t really prepare for at all to be honest.”
Phillips will try to help with that transition by taking the red no-contact jersey off the freshmen quarterbacks in at least one scrimmage.
“I think you need to do that also for freshman quarterback because they don’t understand the speed which the game is played at this level,” he said.
Speed of the game is just one adjustment the freshmen will have to make. Smith also admitted it took awhile for him to feel like he earned the respect of his teammates as a freshman.
“You come in like you don’t have that respect,” he said. “I kind of felt that way too because you know you haven’t done anything. It’s the SEC. It’s not high school anymore. You’ve got to come in, you’ve got to prove yourself.”
Towles said Newton and Smith have helped him begin the adjustment process during summer workings. He is spending extra hours studying his playbook and watching film to prepare for the competition.
“The more film you watch, the quicker you get acclimated with everything,” he said. “The more defense you see, the better off you will be.”
Towles said he knows it will be difficult to adjust to the speed of playing in the SEC, but he’s not giving up.
“It’s so much faster than high school ball,” he said. “It’s a huge difference, but I don’t think it’s a difference that’s insurmountable.”