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It’s been 282 days since UK sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith last stepped on the field for an official football game.
The newly minted starter is ready to play again. He just has to wait five more days for the Wildcats’ season opener at Louisville.
“I can’t wait,” he said Monday. “I’ve been waiting for this for a long time, just ready to get going.”
Smith spent most of fall camp locked in a battle for the starting quarterback spot with senior Morgan Newton. After starting three games as a true freshman and taking all the snaps in spring practice while Newton rehabbed from offseason shoulder surgery, Smith appeared to have a leg up in the competition.
Last week, he cemented that advantage when UK head coach Joker Phillips named him the starter. Since that announcement, Smith’s focus has shifted from winning a job to preparing his team to win against the two-touchdown-favorite Cardinals.
“I’ve got to put the team on my shoulders, and we’ve got to do this thing,” he said.
When last seen in an official game, Smith was at the helm of a 19-10 lost to Georgia in the second-to-last game of the 2011 season. He completed 17 of 34 pass attempts for 133 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in that game. He was sacked four times.
The loss to Georgia marked the third consecutive start for Smith before he missed the season-ending win against Tennessee with an injury. UK was 1-2 in the games he started, but the offense averaged 201.33 passing yards per game compared to 113.67 passing yards per game in the nine games started by other Wildcats.
Smith isn’t resting on the fact that the offense looked better behind him in 2011.
“I haven’t done anything,” he said. “I haven’t proved anything to anyone, so that’s what I’m here to do: prove that I can play and move the ball up and down the field, hopefully score some touchdowns.”
Fans can expect to see a more efficient and confident Smith in 2012, Phillips said.
“Last year as a freshman everything was new to him,” Phillips said. “Especially seeing our defense, there’s nothing he hasn’t seen. There’s nothing that can confuse him that he hasn’t seen. You’ll see a more confident, more relaxed Max Smith.”
Smith said he is relishing the Wildcats’ underdog status against Louisville. He was careful to avoid guaranteeing an upset or to say UK felt slighted by the two-touchdown line set by odds-makers.
Instead, he said he and his teammates would leave it to their play on the field to determine if they were disrespected.
“We’ll find out Sunday if they’re two touchdowns better than us,” he said.
Freshmen punter leads newcomers on two-deep depth chart
Seven true freshmen are listed on the season’s first official two-deep depth chart, released by UK Monday.
The only starter in the group is punter Landon Foster, but four other true freshmen are listed as backups on offense or defense.
Left tackle Jordan Swindle is listed at second team behind sophomore Darrian Miller. In the defensive secondary, cornerbacks Fred Tiller and J. D. Harmon and safety Daron Blaylock are listed as backups.
Blaylock started the fall as a linebacker, but was able to move up the safety depth chart while subbing for an injured player.
“You come out of the lineup, somebody goes in,” Phillips said. “This guy goes in, was able to get lined up, was able to come down here and make plays for us.”
The cornerback position entered camp in a numbers crunch after projected starter Marcus Caffey was ruled academically ineligible for the season. Senior Martavius Neloms moved from safety to cornerback to help make up for that loss, and Harmon, a freshman walk-on, moved to the position from wide receiver to add depth.
Now, Harmon will likely be the fifth defensive back used when the Wildcats go to a nickel package.
“He’s done an unbelievable job,” Phillips said of Harmon. “He’s a real physical guy. He’s a real long guy. Stronger than most freshmen that come in here in the secondary.”
The true freshmen offensive and defensive players are joined on the depth chart by wide receiver Demarcus Sweat and tailback Dyshawn Mobley, who are listed as the backup kickoff returners.
Sweat and Mobley should both see playing time at their official positions as well. Just because several freshmen aren’t listed on the two-deep depth chart, doesn’t mean they won’t play.
“You worry about those guys getting big-eyed right off the bat, but they’ll play,” Phillips said. “They’ll play a lot.”
Phillips doesn’t have that same concern for Foster, his only true-freshman starter.
“He can handle the pressure,” Phillips said. “He’s a different breed. We had true freshmen out there at that position a lot since we’ve been here. He’s no different than those guys.”
Wide receivers in flux on first depth chart
Throughout fall camp, the player Phillips most consistently singled out as a likely playmaker for the upcoming season was sophomore wide receiver Demarco Robinson. It came as some surprise then that Robinson was not listed as a starter on the first two-deep depth chart, instead being listed as senior La’Rod King‘s backup.
While Phillips noted the staff sometimes lists certain players as backups to motivate them to work harder in practice, that is not the case with Robinson.
“He will play and play a lot. You have to make somebody the starer. Those other guys we think deserve to start in the opening game.”
Those “other guys” are seniors E. J. Fields and Gene McCaskill. Senior Aaron Boyd and redshirt freshman Daryl Collins are also listed in the two-deep depth chart.
“Those three guys have done a really good job and deserve to be the guys that run out there first,” Phillips said.
Smith said the receivers have shown enough in camp for him to think the unit’s struggles from 2011 are behind them.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that can make plays,” he said. “La’Rod (King), we know he can make plays. Demarco (Robinson) and Daryl (Collins) and E. J. (Fields) and Gene (McCaskill) is finally back and healthy. I think that will be really big-time for us.”
Phillips confirmed that sophomore tailback Josh Clemons will miss the season opener after having his knee scoped last week…Junior tight end Jordan Aumiller is day-to-day with plantar fasciitis…Sophomore Tyler Brause is listed as the starter at weakside linebacker, but Phillips said sophomore Malcolm McDuffen remains in contention to start the opener. “That’s a day-to-day competition,” he said…UK lists senior CoShik Williams or junior Raymond Sanders as the starter at tailback, but Phillips said last week that Williams deserved the first carries from the position.
You can read the full UK football preview series here.