LEXINGTON — I understand completely that this speaks volumes about how far University of Kentucky football dipped under Joker Phillips, but I was at least borderline thrilled with the Wildcats’ showing in Saturday’s 27-13 loss to No. 7 Louisville.
It’s early, but I get the impression that maybe coach Mark Stoops and his staff have some ability to coach up players.
Kentucky is no world-beater — I understand that, too. But the team that battled Louisville to the wire is not remotely the same team that lost the opener to Western Kentucky.
I also believe with the way recruiting is going, the UK coaches won’t have to depend so much on coaching up to succeed in the long-term. But that’s a subject for another day.
The most obvious concern, and clearly the biggest disappointment about this Kentucky team, is the quarterback spot.
Nobody seems to want to admit it, but either Maxwell Smith’s shoulder is about to fall off or, for some reason, he’s lost the pin-point ability he had to throw a football like he did at the start of last season.
The fact that Smith could not go during the fourth quarter Saturday against the Cardinals because he aggravated a shoulder injury is a major red flag.
It’s hard to see Smith’s shoulder surviving against the likes of UK’s next three opponents: Florida (Sept. 28), at South Carolina (Oct. 5), and Alabama (Oct. 12).
That brings us to Jalen Whitlow. At least once a game — dating back to his 10 starts a year ago — Whitlow throws a ball that leads me to believe he could blossom into a star.
Unfortunately, there’s probably two or three other times every game where Whitlow throws a ball that makes me scratch my head and say to myself: Why is this guy not better than that?
Smith and Whitlow both had low points that jumped out at me Saturday. Actually, Smith had two. The first was when he overthrew Ryan Timmons by at least 5 yards when Timmons was running free down the middle of the field with nothing but grass between him and the end zone.
The other was the fumble near the end of the first half, with the Wildcats trailing 10-3, facing a first down at the U of L 14-yard-line.
Smith tried to hand the ball to running back Raymond Sanders and it looked like Sanders wasn’t expecting the ball.
UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown said Smith had a “run-pass option” on the play.
This might not have been Smith’s fault, but I didn’t like his response after the game when asked about the play. Smith said he wasn’t sure if it was his fault or Sanders’, but that the film “will tell all.”
Thanks for at least partially throwing your running back under the bus.
It may well have been Sanders’ fault, but you don’t say that to the media, no matter how great the temptation. There are a dozen ways Smith could have answered that question without blaming either player.
Towles an option?
I am hoping that Patrick Towles is a viable option to forget a redshirt year and get into the quarterback mix.
He might as well, with Drew Barker coming on board next season. I don’t believe Kentucky’s quarterback play Saturday should do anything to discourage Barker about joining the Wildcats.
I also realize that both Smith and Whitlow were victimized by a slew of dropped passes by UK’s running backs and wide receivers in the U of L loss. Those certainly didn’t help anything. Fortunately those drops were not because of a lack of talent, just a lack of experience on a big-time stage.
And don’t get me wrong, if Smith isn’t 100 percent, I’d still start Whitlow against Florida. I’m not saying the UK coaches should give up on Whitlow — just saying I’m concerned.
It’s also possible Whitlow wouldn’t appear so nervous if he wasn’t rotating with Smith and would therefore play better.
The play Whitlow made against Louisville that bothered me the most came sometime in the third quarter.
He dropped back to pass and drifted to the right side of the pocket. Timmons was over on the left side with no Louisville defender within 10 yards. Had Whitlow thrown to Timmons, Timmons probably would have had only that one defender to beat for a score.
But Whitlow didn’t seem to look left and finally he tucked the ball and plunged right for just a yard or two gain.
Memo to Smith, Whitlow, Neal Brown ... get Timmons the ball more often. You’ll be glad you did.
It’s thrilling to see the potential of young players like Timmons, Javess Blue and others for Kentucky. The future remains very bright. But better quarterback play will speed the process.
Speaking of quarterbacks, though Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater certainly did not play poorly against UK, his 16-for-28 for 250 yards probably didn’t help his Heisman hopes.
And Louisville’s closer-than-expected win on ESPN probably didn’t help the Cardinals’ chances of getting to the national title game.
The Cardinals need to be blowing out teams, Oregon-style. They have nine more chances to impress during the regular season. Though coach Charlie Strong doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who’s going to run up the score on anybody.
All this said, if I was an NFL general manager and had the first pick in April’s draft, I’d take Bridgewater and feel darned secure about my future at quarterback. And if you can get junior wide receiver DeVante Parker as well, you’ve really got a combo threat.
Parker’s first-half leaping touchdown reception Saturday was NFL quality.
Parker, who played at Ballard, was the best wideout I ever saw at the high school level, and he’s rapidly getting up there on the college level as well.
Last, back to Kentucky, the Sept. 28 home game with Florida could be the Wildcats’ last stand if they have any hopes of getting to six wins and a bowl. That’s not to suggest they should pack it in for 2013 if they lose, but this season could still be special with a win over the Gators.
I don’t believe Florida is as good as Louisville (two words: Sugar Bowl). So with an effort close to what they gave against the Cardinals, along with just a little cleanup on execution and fundamentals, I see no reason why Kentucky can’t be in the Florida game to the end.
Beyond the uneven play at QB, my biggest immediate concern about the Wildcats is the shoulder injury that senior defensive tackle Donte Rumph aggravated against U of L.
There were other factors that went into Louisville’s second-half success running the ball off tackle (exhaustion, for one), but the absence of Rumph in the middle was at least one key factor.