Whitlow, No. 13, looks to the sideline for a call against Georgia. (Photo by Jon Hale)
For once, the UK football team will be able to share some of its quarterback uncertainty with the opponent this Saturday.
The Wildcats travel to Missouri for their first meeting against the Tigers as a member of the Southeastern Conference. As of now, it appears Missouri will be without starting quarterback James Franklin, who threw for 2,865 yards and ran for 981 yards last season.
Franklin sprained his MCL in his left knee against Vanderbilt on Oct. 6
“We don’t anticipate him playing,” said Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel on the Southeastern Conference coaches teleconference Wendesday.
In Franklin’s place, Missouri turned to redshirt freshman Corbin Berkstresser against No. 1 Alabama in the Tigers’ last game. Berkstresser completed 12 of 29 passes for 126 yards with two interceptions in the 42-10 loss.
Berkstresser has seen extended action this season with Franklin hobbled but has yet to top the 200-yard passing mark in any of his five appearances. He completed 21 of 41 passes for 198 yards in a win against Arizona State earlier this season.
While Franklin represents the greater running threat with 75 rushing yards on 51 carries this season compared to 11 yards on 38 carries for Berkstresser, UK defensive coordinator Rick Minter says the Wildcats are not changing their preparation for the backup.
“They really run the same offense,” he said. “They didn’t change much at all when (Franklin) was in and now that (Berkstresser) is in there. With an open date, you kind of prepare for both, but one’s got veteran leadership. The other is a younger kid, but a big ole target. They both run about the same offense.”
UK is no stranger to quarterback injuries.
The Wildcats are still without week-one starter Maxwell Smith, who is likely out for the season with a torn ankle ligament, but will likely see freshman quarterback Patrick Towles return to the lineup Saturday.
Patrick Towles. (Photo by Jon Hale)
Towles completed five of six passes for 71 yards and one touchdown in his only appearance of the season against Mississippi State on Oct. 6. He had to leave that game after his third series after suffering a high ankle sprain while being sacked and has not played since.
“I thought he did a good job this week, moving around better than I would ever have thought,” said UK head coach Joker Phillips Thursday. “He has continued to tell us how fast of a healer he is, and he is. He looked good today, all week really, moving around, especially when you took the air cast off.”
Phillips will turn to freshman quarterback Jalen Whitlow to make his fourth consecutive start Saturday, but Towles will play early. Phillips plans to rotate the two freshmen in between series.
Senior quarterback Morgan Newton may also see some playing time for UK after experiencing success as the red zone quarterback against Georgia.
“We’ll still have a little small package for him, try to get him involved also,” Phillips said. “It gives those young guys a chance to step away if they’re struggling or just a lot of times on the road it gives them a chance to get things to slow down for them.”
While fans may have high hopes for Towles after he completed all five passes on a touchdown drive to start his career, coaches have tried to dampen expectations by reminding reporters this week that Towles only had one week of preparation with the first team before playing against Mississippi State and is still a long way from mastering the playbook.
“I think he understands it a little bit more, but understanding it on paper or understanding it in the meeting room or on film is still a whole lot different than executing it,” said offensive coordinator Randy Sanders. “I do think he’s put in a lot of effort in staying into it mentally. I tried to coach him just as hard while he was hurt as I was while I was trying to get him ready (to play).”
Towles was not made available for interviews this week in hopes that he would be able to minimize distractions before returning to action.
If the combination of he, Whitlow and Newton is able to put points on the board Saturday, the absence of Franklin could help a beleaguered UK defense keep the Wildcats in the game long enough for their first Southeastern Conference win.
Minter noted he would believe Franklin won’t play “when I see it,” but even if the Tigers turn to Berkstresser UK coaches think they have their hands full.
“He’s a guy that knows their offense,” Phillips said. “He’s been in their program for two years, similar to where Max (Smith) is (for us).”
“I’ve been beaten many times by backup quarterbacks because you plan for something and then all the sudden the plan changes,” Minter said. “You just kind of keep focusing on the now.”