LEXINGTON – Sophomore Maxwell Smith is out at quarterback, via injury, and freshman Patrick Towles has not only lost his redshirt status, but will apparently trade off playing time with Jalen Whitlow at QB as the Kentucky Wildcats prepare to host Mississippi State Saturday at 12:21 p.m.
That’s the big news coming out of Kentucky football’s version of “As The Quarterback Turns” on Monday.
Smith, who was dynamic for the Wildcats through the first three games, suffered a torn ligament in an ankle on the second play of Saturday’s 38-17 loss to South Carolina, opening the door for the freshman Whitlow to take over behind center.
It was thought Saturday night that Smith’s injury would not be this serious, but by Sunday night, UK coach Joker Phillips got the news that it probably is.
The torn ligament and pending surgery for Smith were confirmed by doctors on Monday morning.
Smith is out “indefinitely,” meaning he could return this season. But Phillips does not sound optimistic that will be the case.
Hence, he’s taken the redshirt label off of Towles.
It’s a bizarre twist and shows in capital letters why so much angst about who’s playing any position at any one time is such a waste of time in this game of football.
It’s only been a couple of weeks since Phillips said Towles would be redshirted, making Whitlow the No. 3 quarterback behind Smith at one and senior Morgan Newton at two.
Newton apparently played himself out of the position with a rusty showing in a 38-0 loss at Florida on Sept. 22. That elevated Whitlow to No. 2 on the depth chart behind Smith.
Smith missed the Florida game with a sore shoulder but started against South Carolina.
Both Towles, from Kentucky prep power Ft. Thomas Highlands, and Whitlow, from Alabama power Prattville High, came to UK this fall with off the charts credentials.
Phillips indicated that Whitlow will start for Kentucky (1-4 overall, 0-2 in the SEC) against 20th-ranked Mississippi State (4-0, 1-0).
But the UK coach made it clear he’s not activating Towles, so to speak, just to hold a clip board.
They will both play, Phillips said, which is interesting because Whitlow and Towles have differing styles, with Whitlow being a dual run-pass threat, and Towles more of a pro-style drop back passer.
“The reason why we decided to go with Jalen as third (on the QB depth chart recently, ahead of Towles) is because he is a guy who can extend plays,” Phillips said. “We saw that against South Carolina.
“I’m not saying that Patty Ice (Towles’ nickname) can’t. (But) Jalen was signed here as an athlete/quarterback, so he should move around a little bit better, while Patty Ice is more of a pocket passer.”
Phillips says that he’s not only going to “tweak” the offense to expand Whitlow’s role at quarterback, but now he’s going to do the same for Towles.
All while preparing for an undefeated Mississippi State team.
“We’re going to play them both,” Phillips emphasized of Whitlow and Towles. “One of them will have to go in (start), and Jalen will probably be the first one based on the play that we call.”
When asked if he can see a situation where Whitlow and Towles will both be on the field at the same time, Phillips replied: “It’s still just Monday.”
Phillips was asked if it is a daunting task to prepare his two freshmen QBs. He was also asked if he feels like this latest turn in UK football fortunes makes him feel like “the deck is stacked” against him.
Phillips has the same answer for both questions.
“No, it’s football,” he said. “We understand that injuries come with it. I was talking today, in 2005 we had all those injuries, and what was the end result? It created a lot of depth. The depth didn’t show up until the next year, but we did create depth.”
Bless Joker Phillips’ heart. At one point in his weekly press conference Monday, Phillips laughed about some question, and he then said: “Hey, we gotta laugh. Come on.”
If you think it’s kind of crazy now, with Towles suddenly coming out of redshirt obscurity to fight for the starting spot, just wait until next year - regardless of who the head coach is.
Phillips said if Smith cannot return soon, he will apply to the NCAA for a medical redshirt, which the NCAA should grant.
You can play 30 percent of your team’s games and get a medical redshirt, as long as that playing time comes in the first half of the season.
Smith played three full games and two plays of the fourth, meaning he should qualify for the redshirt.
The bottom line is this: It’s likely that Smith, Whitlow and Towles will come to pre-season camp next fall as sophomores. All of ‘em.
“It will work itself out,” Phillips says. “Next year they will all be sophomores with two having an opportunity to redshirt down the road if something happens. And in this game of football, something can happen. We all understand that.”
Phillips indicated that it hasn’t been, understandably, easy for Smith to accept this setback.
“Max is down, obviously,” Phillips said. “He has worked his tail off to get in the position to be playing major college football, and he was a guy who was not signed until March after his senior year of high school football.”
But now it’s Phillips’ job to move forward through a stretch of games that will probably determine his fate as UK football coach, with two freshmen at the game’s most critical position.
At one point Monday UK media relations man Tony Neely announced that Phillips’ press session was over, but John Clay of the Lexington Herald-Leader interjected and asked permission for one more question.
“I know this sounds crazy,” Clay began, “the thought of putting two freshmen quarterbacks out there. But, on the other hand, is there something exciting about it, too? That, you know, let’s see what we’ve got?”
“I think it is exciting,” Phillips said. “The teams we’re about to play have no idea what they’re about to get.
“We don’t know what we’re about to get, but we’re going to go for it.”