Morgan Newton, No. 12, lines up at h-back vs. Kent State. (Photo by Jon Hale)
Upon arriving at UK, when quarterback Morgan Newton envisioned his senior season he probably saw touchdown passes, clutch throws and maybe a few well-timed scrambles.
What he didn’t picture was laying a key block for a freshman wide receiver who took a screen pass for a touchdown from a sophomore who had taken his starting quarterback job.
That’s exactly where Newton found himself Saturday in the fourth quarter of the second game of his senior season. Instead of leading UK to scores as a senior quarterback, he was helping pave the way for them as a h-back, wide receiver and tight end.
When was the last time Newton laid a block like the one that helped free freshman DeMarcus Sweat for a 56-yard touchdown catch-and-run?
“Never,” he said Tuesday. “Maybe in little league, when I was over the weight limit. Probably when I (weighed) too much to run the ball.”
Newton entered fall camp listed as the co-starter at quarterback with sophomore Maxwell Smith, but he faced long odds in the competition after offseason shoulder surgery forced him to miss spring practice.
Three weeks into camp, UK head coach Joker Phillips announced the decision many had expected in the battle: Smith would start. Newton would be his backup.
Morgan Newton. (Photo from UK Athletics)
From there, Newton faded into relative obscurity compared to his first three seasons on campus in which he played in 23 games, starting 17, under center.
While Smith was leading the new no-huddle UK offense to impressive passing numbers in a loss to Louisville and win versus Kent State, Newton spent most of his time signaling in plays from the sideline.
He made one brief appearance in the Louisville loss with a four-yard quarterback keeper on third-and-one that ended with a fumble he recovered himself. He made another cameo in the first quarter against Kent State when his fourth-and-two carry was stopped four yards behind the line of scrimmage for a turnover on downs.
In the fourth quarter, fans saw their first glimpse of what UK coaches had been telling Newton in recent weeks: he wouldn’t be spending all his time on the bench. Newton lined up wide to make a block on the Sweat touchdown, then returned to the game on the second-to-last drive lined up in the backfield next to freshman quarterback Jalen Whitlow.
A player in Newton’s situation might be expected to pout or sulk after losing the quarterback job. He might be expected to be reluctant to accept a role in which he might not even touch the ball on most plays.
That’s hasn’t been the case for Newton.
“I think it would be tough if you thought you we’re supposed to be playing quarterback, but Max is playing well and he’s won SEC games,” Newton said. “He’s playing quarterback pretty good, so if that works it’s the best thing for the team.”
The ball wasn’t thrown Newton’s direction in the game, but it might be headed his way in the near future.
“I feel like if you can’t catch and throw, what kind of athlete are you really?” he said. “Quarterbacks catch just as many times as receivers do because we throw it to them and they’ve got to throw it back.”
After the win against Kent State, Phillips made no effort to hide the fact he would like to see the senior on the field more. On Tuesday, offensive coordinator Randy Sanders agreed.
“He’s too good of an athlete to be on the sidelines,” Phillips said. “We’ll have to try to continue to expand on his role as an h-back, as a wildcat guy, all those type of things that we can do to get him on the field.”
“I told him last spring if he wasn’t the starting quarterback, he wasn’t going to stand beside me,” Sanders said. “We were going to do something. He’s had a great attitude about it, and we’re going to continue working him and see where we can grow this.”
It remains to be seen how much passing Newton’s shoulder will allow him to do, but having a player who has thrown 352 passes in his career on the field in other positions should open up intriguing opportunities for trick plays.
After the Louisville game, Phillips proclaimed Newton the “wildcat” quarterback, which would feature him in a role similar to former UK wide receiver and quarterback Randall Cobb, but Newton said Tuesday calling his role a “wildcat” package was an exaggeration.
“It’s not really a wildcat, to be honest,” he said. “It’s just a short-yardage play we’ve run the last couple of weeks. Wildcat: that’s Jalen (Whitlow)’s stuff.”
Newton and Whitlow were on the field at the same time against Kent State, opening up even more possibilities for trick plays. Phillips said that alignment was mostly coincidence, but Newton is not ready to give up on the hope of some new wrinkles in the offense.
“It could get real fun if they wanted it to,” he said with a smile.
For now, Newton is concentrating on being a good teammate. He doesn’t want his return to the spotlight to take anything away from the success Smith and the offense are currently having.
“It’s good that they think I can help,” he said. “I think I can help too, but I don’t want to step on any toes.
“It I can help out here and there, that’s what I’m here to do. It’s better than signaling.”