By Gary Graves/The Associated Press
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will lean heavily on two freshmen quarterbacks going forward with starter Maxwell Smith out indefinitely with an ankle injury.
Wildcats coach Joker Phillips said Monday Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles will split duty for Saturday’s Southeastern Conference game against No. 20 Mississippi State. The young QBs are being forced into action with Smith needing surgery on his ankle that he injured Saturday, an injury that could possibly turn into a medical hardship request for the sophomore.
Kentucky will be using its third different starter in as many weeks, but Phillips emphasized the QB workload will be shared — even alternating Whitlow and Towles play to play if necessary as Kentucky (1-4, 0-2 SEC) tries to end a three-game losing streak.
“We’ll have to play them both,” he said. “It’s going to take an effort of both of them. And it could be right in the middle of the series. If it’s not series to series, it could be play after play after play, switching them in and out, (giving) them things that they both can do, give them a chance to go out and play and compete.”
Whitlow will be making his first start after relieving Smith two plays into Saturday’s 38-17 loss to No. 6 South Carolina. Smith, who missed the previous game against Florida with a separated shoulder, tore a ligament in his left ankle after being tackled low by South Carolina’s Byron Jerideau and did not return.
Towles meanwhile moves from running the scout team offense in practice and a projected redshirt status to seeing his first action. Given this uncertainty at quarterback, Phillips didn’t dare predict what might happen against the Bulldogs (4-0, 1-0).
“It’s exciting,” Phillips said, laughing. “The team we’re about to play has no idea what they’re about to get, and we have no idea what we’re about to get.”
Whitlow at least gave the Wildcats a better idea of his ability against the Gamecocks after spending last week preparing for the possibility of starting if Smith’s shoulder hadn’t healed. He directed all three first-half scoring drives as the Wildcats jumped to a 17-7 lead; that included his 8-yard touchdown run.
The second half revealed Whitlow’s inexperience after South Carolina brought more defensive pressure. He threw two interceptions, one of which the Gamecocks converted into a touchdown while scoring 31 unanswered points.
Whitlow finished 12 of 23 passing for 114 yards and was sacked six times, including four in the second half. His rushing total was a net six yards on a team-high 16 carries.
“He’s a young quarterback and is learning,” right tackle Kevin Mitchell said. “We’ve just got to protect whoever’s in there.”
Despite the outcome, Phillips said the 6-2, 202-pounder showed a better grasp of the offense and more composure than the previous week at Florida, when he was 1 of 6 for 12 yards after relieving emergency starter Morgan Newton in the fourth quarter.
“I didn’t really see much of it when he came off the sideline in the Florida game, but this week I paid a little bit more attention to him after he came off the sideline,” Phillips said. “And he was as poised as I’ve ever seen a true freshman go in a game.
“He was able to give us back information that we needed. He was seeing things well. There were some things that he didn’t (see) 7/8— some motions, some shifts that he struggled with at times — but those are things we may have to give up, you know, just to give him a chance to play a little bit faster. But I really liked what I saw in his eyes during the game.”
Whitlow’s ability to run and pass — Kentucky’s media guide lists him as a quarterback/athlete — and extend plays helped him win the third-string job over Towles this summer. The coaching staff then began grooming him to be Smith’s backup with Newton learning to play H-back.
Towles, 6-5 and 242, can run as well but is considered more of a pocket passer. The latter is why he has been mentioned as the Wildcats’ long-term solution at QB.
For now, the mission is giving Towles repetitions with the first team offense and preparing him for seeing live defenses at full speed. Both Kentucky QBs will see one of the SEC’s most physical defenses in Mississippi State, which leads the conference with nine interceptions.
“The speed of the game will be (Towles’) biggest challenge, and understanding it,” Phillips said. “And also the speed at which those defensive backs break on balls. These guys (MSU) are leading the league in interceptions with nine. They got two for touchdowns, and that’s going to be his biggest challenge to understand how quick they really are.”