Time could be drawing short for junior quarterback Morgan Newton to return to practice.
Kentucky's incumbent starter, locked in a position battle with freshman Maxwell Smith this week, still hasn't taken any snaps with the first team as he recovers from a high ankle sprain suffered in Saturday's 28-16 loss to Mississippi State on Saturday. Newton limped off the practice field on Wednesday as Smith stuck around to get some extra throws in.
Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips said if Newton is still unable to fully participate in practice on Thursday, the coaching staff will probably have to make its final decision.
"Whether or not he's going to be the starter, we probably have to decide that tomorrow," he said.
Smith and Newton have been off-limits to reporters after practice this week.
Even if Newton doesn't start Saturday's game against Ole Miss, he'll likely dress and serve as Smith's backup. He's the only other quarterback available for the Wildcats. True freshman Bookie Cobbins is redshirting and sophomore Jacob Russell is sitting the year out after transferring from Eastern Kentucky.
If Smith does earn his first career start on Saturday, it could be the beginning of a new era. He went 26-33 for 174 yards against Mississippi State, leading the Wildcats on one touchdown drive and marching them down the field before a drive late in the fourth quarter stalled eight yards away from the end zone.
"He has the potential to be good," junior receiver La'Rod King said. "He's still learning. He's a freshman. But he's progressing really good."
Smith arrived at Kentucky before the Wildcats began practicing for the BBVA Compass Bowl at the end of last season. He greyshirted in the fall semester, remaining at home in Los Angeles and training with former NFL quarterback Erik Kramer. Passing game coordinator Tee Martin set Smith up with Kramer, who has served as a quarterback coach since retiring from the NFL.
"(Kramer) called me and said 'Man, this kid is special,'" Martin said.
He wasn't a heavily-touted high school recruit at Birmingham High School and only signed with Kentucky in March 2010, but became the No. 2 quarterback by default when sophomore Ryan Mossakowski transferred.
King noticed something different about Smith from the first day he arrived on campus.
"He had that Cali swag, man," King said.
He showed up wearing tight jeans and sneakers not normally seen in Kentucky, catching his teammates off guard. But he was also laid-back; cool, calm and collected. Smith was always relaxed.
That carried over into games. Even when he entered Saturday's game trailing the Bulldogs, he wasn't flustered. His two long drives came late in the game after Kentucky had already fallen behind by two possessions.
"He plays the game like you always have a chance," Martin said.
His teammates took note. Even though they lost the game, the true freshman had won the trust of many on offense.
"I asked the receivers how he was in the huddle and they said 'Man, he was good,'" Martin said. "The guys feel like they can go out and win with Max. He's a true freshman, but they understand what kind of talent he is and they go out and play hard for him."
Things haven't always been smooth for Smith this season. His first game action came in a baptism of blitzes. He relieved Newton in Kentucky's blowout losses at Louisiana State and South Carolina before being benched himself after proving to be ineffective.
At one point in those two games, he turned the ball over on three consecutive plays. His was strip-sacked on his final play against LSU, and the fumble was returned for a touchdown. He threw back-to-back interceptions on his first two throws against the Gamecocks before Newton eventually replaced him. After the South Carolina game, offensive coordinator Randy Sanders gave Newton a vote of confidence, indicating he would stick with Newton for the rest of the season.
Smith's performance on Saturday changed all that.
"He had success," offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. "Success breeds a little bit of confidence."
He still has a long way to go. Senior receiver Matt Roark said on Monday that there were times in the game where his teammates would have to help him interpret signals from the coaching staff. He's had almost a year in the system, but is still working on some of the intricacies of the playbook and catching up to the speed of defenses in the Southeastern Conference.
But he has improved in practice. Phillips said Wednesday that he had already notice one big change in the young signal caller.
"I never heard him tell anybody what to do (before today), because he was always worried about what he was going to do," Phillips said. "I saw a lot of that today.
There are still plenty of drawbacks to Smith. Jumping from practice to the starting lineup is a big challenge. Every play, a quarterback has to receive signals from the coaching staff, interpret them and relay them to his teammates, all while keeping his eye on the play clock.
When he gets to the line, he has to read the defense and check the position of the safeties. If a defense shows blitz, he has to be able to audible out of the play or change the blocking scheme to protect himself from taking a big hit. That hasn't become second nature to Smith yet, Sanders said.
There's also a slight difference in the scheme the coaching staff can use when switching from Smith to Newton. Sanders said after the game on Saturday he had to change his game plan on the fly to accommodate for what Smith was able to do.
"Morgan knows the system a lot better," graduate assistant Andre Woodson said. "We can do a lot more. He's a runner as well as a thrower. With Max, he's strictly a passer. The playbook obviously gets limited with him and with him not knowing the system as well, it becomes that much smaller with what we can choose from."
Smith has earned praise from his coaches and teammates in practice this week while Newton has been sidelined by his ankle injury. But as of Wednesday, Phillips said there was still no final decision.
Roark and King, for their part, have no preference on who they would like to see start.
If Newton does miss Saturday's game, there's no guarantee he'll be healthy by next week, creating what Woodson called a "complex situation." Phillips hasn't ruled out the possibility that Newton and Smith could both play on Saturday.
Martin, unlike Woodson, said starting the freshman wouldn't change Kentucky's game plan. Regardless of who starts, he said, they'll have the same plays and the quarterback will be required to make the same reads.
Martin has confidence in Newton and Smith. So do the receivers. And of course, Smith has confidence in himself.
"(Smith) has the moxie of a quarterback," Martin said."That's what you like about him. He's a guy who a lot of the guys follow because he does have that confidence and swagger about him. He's confident about what he's doing, even when he doesn't know what he's doing."
What Smith has shown in practice to this point, though, has created a buzz about his potential.
"It's exciting for the future," Sanders said. "It's exciting for what he can become. Hopefully the future becomes this Saturday."
Cats Illustrated staff writer T.J. Walker contributed to this story.
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