LEXINGTON — A news conference featuring the swirling emotions of University of Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops gained news value Monday when Stoops was asked if ailing quarterback Jalen Whitlow is getting significant reps in practice this week.
Whitlow played sparingly Thursday night in yet another close SEC loss for the Wildcats, this time a 28-22 verdict at Mississippi State.
Maxwell Smith was the starter and was not especially effective as UK fell to 1-6 overall and 0-4 in the Southeastern Conference.
Asked about Whitlow, the starter the first six games of the season before injuring an ankle, Stoops’ gaze hardened and his chin stuck out as if made of concrete.
“He’d better,” Stoops said of Whitlow’s added reps with the first team in practice. “He’s got a dinged up shoulder, but it’s fine. It’s an AC joint. He’ll be sore. He’ll be out there practicing today.”
Three questions later, a reporter went back to the question about Whitlow, and Stoops indicated — without saying so directly — that true freshman Reese Phillips is the No. 2 guy at quarterback, jumping over not only Smith, but apparently leaping ahead of Patrick Towles as well.
The UK coaches had said throughout the young season that hopes were both Phillips and Towles would redshirt this season.
“You sounded, answering that question, like a man who doesn’t see there being any other option after what happened last week,” a reporter said to Stoops.
Replied Stoops: “I see it as a guy that’s leading the program in the SEC, and I see other SEC players banged up and leading their team to victory, don’t you? That’s what we need to do.”
Stoops was referring to Connor Shaw of South Carolina, who came off the bench Saturday to lead the Gamecocks to a stunning, come-from-behind 27-24 win at Missouri.
Whitlow appears to be the guy Stoops and staff still want leading Kentucky at quarterback. And, if not — if Whitlow’s previous sprained ankle or shoulder are problematic — then it will be Phillips coming on board.
Presumably as soon as Saturday when the Wildcats play a non-conference tilt with a not-so-bad 6-2 Alabama State team at Commonwealth Stadium. Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. on some TV network called Comcast South.
To be clear, Stoops was later asked, is Phillips your third option or second option?
“I don’t know,” Stoops said, without sounding terribly sincere. “We’ll work on that this week. He’s definitely going to be an option.”
Asked what he likes in Phillips, a 6-foot-2, 219-pound freshman from Signal Mountain, Tenn., Stoops said: “He’s always done a nice job of managing the game, going back to the spring game, through all of the scrimmages he’s been in.”
Stoops said that’s all that’s needed to make this Kentucky offense more consistently effective.
“He takes care of the football,” Stoops said of Phillips. “If nothing else, if we get ourselves with certain plays and checks and run-pass options, if we just execute the call, we give ourselves a chance. We’re not even doing that at times, and that’s frustrating, let alone throws and different things.
“I think he does a nice job protecting the football, and I think he does a nice job with his decision making.”
While expressing, on the one hand, that he is “completely confident” in the direction the Wildcats are going, Stoops noted several times Monday that he is frustrated at some of the mistakes that continue to be made.
“It’s a little redundant, isn’t it?” Stoops said of mistake talk. “I talk about it a lot and it gets old. But we need to play better, and we need to play smarter. Those are things we can control, and those are things we keep working on.
“I think we all see us resembling a good football team from time to time, but that’s not going to cut it and win you a lot of games in the SEC. You’ve got to be good top to bottom, and you’ve got to be good in critical situations, and most importantly, when you’re under pressure, those are when old habits come right to the surface.”
In other words, Stoops, staff and players are dealing with the ghosts of UK football past.
“It’s difficult,” Stoops said about shaking the losing culture. “Anybody that’s trying to rebuild a program will tell you that the best way to rebuild and get that confidence is get some wins. Well, they don’t exactly give those out in the SEC. You have to be a good, sound football team, and we’re not there yet.
“We’re working on it.”
UK NOTES: SEC officials announced Monday that the Wildcats’ Nov. 9 home game with Missouri will start at noon and be televised on either ESPNU or Fox South ...UK junior defensive end Alvin “Bud” Dupree has been named Honorable Mention Defensive Lineman of the Week by the College Football Performance Awards for his career game against Mississippi State last week, it was announced Monday.
Dupree, who was returning for the first time after sitting out the last game and a half due to injury, recorded a career-high 13 tackles in the game, including one sack and two tackles for loss.