Jalen Whitlow scrambles against South Carolina. (Photo by Jon Hale)
It appears that almost no one knows what to expect from the UK football offense on Saturday versus Mississippi State, including the coaches.
With sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith likely out for the season after undergoing surgery this week on a torn ligament in his ankle and senior quarterback Morgan Newton haven struggled mightily in a start at Florida, the Wildcats will use a timeshare between true freshmen Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles at quarterback this weekend.
“I think it is exciting because I can tell you this: the team we’re about to play has no idea what they’re about to get,” said UK head coach Joker Phillips on Monday. “We really don’t know what we’re about to get, but we’re going to go for it.”
After a week of practice, little more is known about how exactly the Wildcats will use the quarterback tandem this weekend, but Phillips has divulged a few facts.
Whitlow will be the first quarterback to see the field, but Phillips stopped short of calling him the starter.
“There’s really not a starter,” Phillips said Thursday. “It’s Whitlow or Towles, but Jalen will run out there first.”
Phillips also promised that both quarterbacks will play, maybe even on the same series at times.
“It will be more situational,” Phillips said of the rotation. “We’ve committed to playing them both, and we need to play them both.”
While Whitlow is considered the better runner of the pair and Towles is considered the better passer, Wildcat coaches have not let on much about what type of plays each quarterback will run.
It appears unlikely though that either quarterback will have the full playbook at his disposal.
“We’re going to try to put them in position to do the things they do well,” said UK offensive coordinator Randy Sanders. “I’m sure there will be some overlap, but there will be some differences there also.”
While coaches noted throughout the fall that the new no-huddle offense was suited to Smith’s particular skill set, they will not radically alter the system with two freshmen at the helm.
In fact, coaches think that system will make their transition easier.
“A lot of times the hardest thing for a young guy is getting the play called right in the huddle,” Sanders said. “If you don’t have to worry about that, it makes it easier.”
UK fans have still seen very little from either freshman quarterback, but they at least have seen almost one full game from Whitlow.
After replacing Smith on the third offensive play of the game, Whitlow completed 12 of 23 pass attempts for 114 yards with two interceptions against South Carolina. He gained 53 rushing yards in the game, but seven sacks brought his net rushing total to just six yards with one touchdown.
In two brief appearances before the South Carolina game, Whitlow had completed one of six pass attempts for 12 yards and had gained five yards on two carries.
Patrick Towles. (Photo by Jon Hale)
The only public glimpse of Towles, the 2012 Mr. Kentucky Football and a four-star recruit according to Rivals.com, playing in a UK football uniform came on Fan Day, the first practice of the fall.
“He has pretty good control of the ball and knows where it’s going,” Phillips said of Towles. “The thing is get him into a game and see what he can do, see how accurate he can be in a game.”
“He has a lot of confidence in his ability,” Phillips added. “We’re going to throw him out there and see what happens.”
Phillips and his staff are no strangers to breaking in freshmen quarterbacks.
UK has started at least one true freshman at the position in three of the last four seasons.
“Everybody thinks it’s easy,” Phillips said. “It’s difficult to get a true freshman ready to play with all the things that are involved, especially some of the defenses that we see.”
UK graduate assistant and former standout quarterback Andre’ Woodson had the benefit of a redshirt season before he had to see his first action, but he remembers what it was like as a young player.
He’s been impressed with both quarterback’s presence this week.
“Most times you see freshmen, they’re really quiet, they won’t do a good job of trying to take over the offense,” he said. “They’ll be timid to jump in there and try to take leadership roles. Both these guys have done a wonderful job of trying to be vocal, trying to go out there and try to show leadership skills and really demand the offense.”
How long UK can rotate Whitlow and Towles at quarterback remains to be seen, but Saturday’s game should go a long way to showing what kind of offense fans can expect for the rest of the season.
“It will be exciting,” Sanders said. “It will be exciting one way or another.”