October 3, 2012

Whitlow, Towles prepare for new roles

Kentucky is throwing in the Towles. But to do that, they'll have to Whitlow down the playbook.

True freshman quarterbacks Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles are both expected to play when Kentucky hosts No. 20 Mississippi State on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium.

It's a steep task for both as they step in for sophomore Maxwell Smith, who underwent surgery for a torn ligament in his ankle on Monday and is expected to miss the rest of the season. To try and help them, the Wildcats are paring down their playbook and rotating the duo in practice.

"I don't know if there's anything that's much harder," senior quarterback Morgan Newton said. He had one week to prepare for his first career start as a true freshman in 2009 against Auburn.

This could be an even bigger change than UK's previous midseason switches to freshmen quarterbacks. In 2009, Newton would receive a reprieve when wide receiver Randall Cobb ran the Wildcat formation. In 2011, Smith had the benefit of a full spring practice and nearly a full season before the change was made.

Towles and Whitlow won't have either advantage. Whitlow played the majority of last weekend's 38-17 loss to South Carolina, but had played sparingly before that. Towles had been redshirting, operating as scout team quarterback. This week is the first time since fall camp he's even worked with the starting offense.

As of Wednesday, there was still no decision on which quarterback would start, or how the rotation would shake out.

"Who gets the first snap, I don't know," offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. "But it will have to be a rotation, because I can't get either one of them ready to do the whole thing."

Whitlow and Towles also have different skill sets. Whitlow is a skilled runner who can improvise when plays break down. Towles, listed at 6-foot-5, 242 pounds, is a prototypical passer who can also run when needed.

It's Towles' arm that set him apart as the No. 9 quarterback in the class of 2012, though. Senior wide receiver La'Rod King said he's seen the freshman throw the ball 90 yards.

"I might be tripping, but it was far," King said. "I know I was running for a while."

Kentucky's no-huddle offense will make things a bit easier, because the quarterback isn't required to communicate the play to the rest of the team when it comes in from the sidelines. Sanders and the other coaches can also make audibles and change protection before the play, taking more responsibility out of the hands of the young players.

Senior center Matt Smith, a team captain, can also take some of the load off. Newton had veteran center Jorge Gonzales in 2009, and an experienced offensive lineman can help makes some of the calls

"It's a tough deal for any of those guys," graduate assistant Andre Woodson said. "The biggest part is trying to slim the book down a little bit and make it easier for those guys so they can go out there, make one or two reads and that's it. Then they'll try and get it out of their hands as quick as possible."

Mississippi State presents its own set of challenges. The Bulldogs (4-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) are second in the nation with nine interceptions. They have two players that rank in the top ten in the nation in interceptions.

In some ways, their youth might be an advantage. There won't be pressure on either of them like there was with Smith earlier this year. There's also very little film on either player for the Bulldogs to evaluate.

"Sometimes, ignorance is bliss," Newton said. "It helps not knowing. You just go out there and play and react."

Newton has spoken to both quarterbacks, but hasn't specifically discussed their situation with them this week.

"There are so many people on the sidelines every day like 'This is your opportunity. This is your chance.' They hear that enough," Newton said. "To be honest, after about the 12th guy saying 'This is your chance,' and being all dramatic, they're tired of hearing it."

Whitlow and Towles have enough on their plate without another reminder. Towles is making the transition from scout team to starter, and trying to find a rhythm with a new group of players. Whitlow was running with the third string just a few weeks ago. To help make things easier, both quarterbacks were placed off-limits to the media this week.

Kentucky coach Joker Phillips has been pleased with their progress in practice this week, but cautioned that performance in practice doesn't always carry over when a player is thrust into game action.

"Practicing and actually playing in the game are complete opposites," Woodson said.

There have been positive signs, though. Phillips found Whitlow in the film room by himself at 9 p.m. on Monday. Whitlow spoke softly when he was thrust into the game on Saturday, but has since become more vocal.

Towles has jumped right into his new role, and the coaches saw him in the film room late on Tuesday.

"They both have that confidence, and I like that," King said. "You expect to see that because guys who are depressed and scared to take that role, that's when you start panicking. But right now, we're not panicking. We're good. They're both out here trying to make plays and making plays. It's good. I'm excited."

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