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August 8, 2014
Four-man Kentucky QB race is 'wide open'
Accuracy matters. Arm strength will count.
The Kentucky football team will choose a starting quarterback based on his ability to move the offense, to be a leader. He'll need to make all the throws and avoid costly mistakes.
It won't come down to a Rock-Paper-Scissors competition, which really is too bad for redshirt freshman Reese Phillips.
"He somehow has a tactic," freshman Drew Barker, like Phillips a contender for the starting job, said at Friday's Media Day. "I don't know what he does. But he wins every single time. I've never seen him lose, honestly."
In walkthroughs and drills, there are times when offensive coordinator Neal Brown lets his quarterback contenders -- Phillips, Barker, Patrick Towles and Maxwell Smith -- decide for themselves who will take the first snap.
In the interest of fairness, the quarterbacks let Rock-Paper-Scissors decide.
But Phillips has beaten Barker at least four times in a row. He's taken down Towles the last five times.
"I don't know what he does," Towles said. "He just gets in my head and I don't like it."
It'll take more than Rock-Paper-Scissors superiority to win the starting job. Through a week of practice, though, the competition appears close enough that it's practically a coin flip.
"It is wide open ," coach Mark Stoops said Friday. "Somebody needs to take the reins and be the clear cut winner of this job, and they need to do that. We're giving them plenty of opportunity. Somebody needs to take it and run with it."
Here's a look -- in alphabetical order -- at the runners trying to pull away:
Though Barker's the bluest blue chip of the bunch -- he was a four-star recruit and the fifth-ranked pro-style quarterback in Rivals' Class of 2014 rankings -- he's the greenest of the QBs.
The 6-foot-3, 216-pound true freshman from Connor High School arrived on campus in January and went through spring practice -- there's "no way," he said, he could have been a contender if he hadn't -- but has even less experience than redshirt Phillips, who spent all of last season in practices and studying the playbook.
Still, Barker has made up ground quickly.
"Drew Barker has made less mental mistakes than he made during the spring, even in the last week of the spring practice," Brown said.
That's in part because Barker finally got some time to slow down his crash course in the Kentucky offense.
"During spring practice, I would literally learn something 15 minutes before I went out on the field and had to do it," Barker said. "So obviously I was gonna mess up sometimes on that."
Barker said he threw more touchdown passes than any Wildcat quarterback during spring practices, but quickly noted that he also threw the most interceptions, including more than one that was returned for a touchdown.
By the end of the spring, Barker said he was "pretty much mentally exhausted" from having to absorb so much information so quickly. But he spent the summer poring over the playbook and now feels "more confident in my decisions."
"I feel like we're all neck-and-neck, so I guess it's gonna be a tough decision who they're gonna decide to play," Barker said. "Personally, I would be upset with myself if I didn't make it a hard decision for me not to play. Hopefully I have done that for them."
The Steady One
Phillips is aware that "consistent" is damning faint praise for a quarterback.
He knows that when you use it to describe a quarterback, you usually mean he can't make a big play.
He doesn't mind.
"This offense takes a consistent quarterback," Phillips said. "Obviously we want to make the big plays and be playmakers, but at the same time, you can't do that without making the little throws and the consistent throws. And I think that's what I do well, and I think Coach Brown is trying to train us all to be that way."
If there's been a knock on the 6-2, 218-pound Phillips, it's that he doesn't have the arm to make all the throws a Southeastern Conference quarterback is asked to make.
He's not buying it, insisting he can make any throw the Kentucky offense requires.
Brown credited Phillips for improving his arm strength in the offseason, though Phillips said his summer strides actually had little to do with his arm.
"Fundamentally, my drop is so much quicker now -- three-step, five-step, whatever it might be," Phillips said. "So much quicker to where my timing is a lot better, which gets the ball there quicker and gets my players a better chance to get it and go up field. With that -- more tempo on your drop -- I got more power in my legs. A lot of it is technically your arm strength, but really it's your legs."
The Comeback Story
For the most part this offseason, the four quarterbacks have been on equal footing.
But Smith's arm has lagged behind.
"Obviously, it sinks," Smith said of his recovery from shoulder surgery, which held him out of spring practice and so far in camp is allowing him to throw only every other day.
The other three quarterback contenders have split reps equally through week one. Smith hopes to join them on Monday, when he said he's hoping to be cleared to throw every day.
Of all four QBs, the 6-4, 238-pound Smith has the most experience. He's started 11 games and played in 10 others and has thrown for 3,070 yards, 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
And yet outside UK football's inner circle, he's almost an afterthought to win the job.
"If I didn't have my eyes on the job, I might as well just call it quits now, in my opinion," Smith said. "Of course I got my eyes on the job. I'm not the kind of person that's just gonna lay down and just hand over (the job), like, 'Here. You guys can take it now.'"
Even with his throwing limited -- Smith has some soreness the day after throwing, though he said by now it's minimal -- he's managed to show some improvement.
"Maxwell has shown the ability to throw the ball effectively down the middle," Brown said. "Now, he's still got to be able to throw it outside to the numbers, to the outside, but he's shown the ability coming off surgery to throw the ball effectively down the middle."
And Smith is confident he'll be even better by the time the season starts.
"Who knows if (my arm) will ever be back to (where) it was before I hurt my shoulder my freshman year?" Smith said. "But I think I can make every throw and I can make the throws needed to play in the SEC."
The Spring Standout
No quarterback has pulled away this summer, but Towles looked to be in the strongest position coming out of the spring.
The 6-5, 238-pound sophomore completed 11 of 15 passes for 126 yards in the Blue-White Spring Game and entered the offseason perhaps with the slightest edge in the competition.
Then he spent his summer continuing the work he started in the winter with private quarterback coach Donny Walker. Part of the focus -- and an area in which Brown said Towles has improved -- was developing a quicker release.
"There's two parts to that," Towles said. "There's making decisions faster, and then it's, once you make the decision, getting the ball out of hands faster, both of which have gotten better."
Towles has a balance of talent -- "The kid's got a cannon," Smith said -- and some experience, having played in five games as a true freshman before redshirting last season when he couldn't beat out Smith or Jalen Whitlow for the starting job. Towles completed 19 of 40 passes for 233 yards with a touchdown and an interception in 2012.
But if that taste of life in the SEC or his strong showing in the spring has given Towles a leg up, UK coaches aren't letting on. Though Towles said the quarterbacks would like to hear a decision "soon," Stoops insists the staff will take its time.
And though coaches say the next five to seven days could be critical, Towles isn't looking that far ahead.
"Every week's a big week," he said. "The spring was the biggest spring of my life. Each practice, the next practice is the most important. Each play, the next play's the most important play. I really can't think about two days from now. I got to think about today."
It's what each of Kentucky's QB contenders has to think about for now.
The next week is a heavy time.
So between themselves they'll try to keep it light.
Phillips, who's dishing out beatings at Rock-Paper-Scissors ace, isn't always a winner. The other three quarterbacks -- all with closely cropped haircuts -- have taken to mocking his mop-topped locks. In turn, he gives them grief for sporting hairdos without "quarterback flow."
The games and insults are distractions. They let Phillips, Barker, Smith and Towles take a break off the field from what will be an intense camp on it.
"There's no denying that as soon as we are on the field -- practice and live situations -- it's on and we're going at each other all day long," Towles said. "Like, no nonsense. It's 150 percent serious. We're going at it. But when we're off the field, we're all very secure in ourselves so that we don't have to go at each other all the time."