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September 27, 2012

Smith expected to start after limited practice

Put your first quarterback in. Then take your first quarterback out.

Then put your second quarterback in, who used to be your third quarterback.

What's that all about?

With sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith limited in practice this week, the Wildcats have been forced to alternate between he and true freshman Jalen Whitlow. Smith was originally scheduled to throw only on Wednesday, but instead threw on Tuesday and Thursday.

He practiced on Wednesday, but Whitlow took all the passing reps with the starters. Whitlow

Smith is expected to play on Saturday despite re-aggravating a separated shoulder against WKU. He originally suffered the injury on Nov. 19 against Georgia last season, and was a late scratch for last week's game at Florida because of it.

"(Smith) is a lot healthier than he was last week," Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said. "So therefore he'll play."

Smith was expected to play against Florida, but Kentucky trainer Jim Madaleno advised Phillips after practice last Thursday that he'd be risking a more severe injury if he played. Smith traveled to Florida and was willing to play, but the coaches held him out anyway.

Senior quarterback Morgan Newton started in his place, but was underwhelming. He completed 7 of 21 passes for 48 yards with three interceptions, and had minus-one passing yard after halftime. Whitlow took all the snaps with the second team offense this week and even worked with the starters when Smith didn't throw on Wednesday. If Smith is unable to play against South Carolina, Phillips said Whitlow would likely play over Newton.

But the coaches and players expect that Smith will start. When he did practice this week, Phillips could sense a distinct change in the offense. Passes were crisper, but players themselves also acted differently.

"When Max is out there, you can tell the receivers practice at a different level," Phillips said. "Rhythm? I don't know if it's rhythm but there's a little more enthusiasm. The guy is completing 68 percent of his passes, so if I'm a receiver I'm going to be happy because I'll be involved in the passing game. I don't know if it has anything to do with rhythm, but it has something to do with our attitude overall."

Smith did take reps with the first team offense during running plays on Wednesday. When a passing play was called, he stood behind Whitlow to get a better look at the scout team defense as it tried to mimic South Carolina.

Smith's credentials are obvious. He ranks in the top 10 nationally in passing yards per game and despite sitting out last week, he still ranks 25th nationally with eight touchdown passes. Beyond that, there's a intangible comfort level between Smith and his teammates.

"All through camp, we've been working with (Smith)," senior wide receiver Gene McCaskill said. "We work with all the quarterbacks, but you get more first team reps than you do with the second and third string quarterbacks. We just have a lot of chemistry. No disrespect to any of the other quarterbacks, but when Max is in it's clicking. He knows every receiver and every route."

There are differences for other players on the offense also. Senior guard Larry Warford is more focused on the player in front of him than the quarterback behind him, but Smith and Whitlow's contrasting styles force the line to block differently. While Smith is a drop-back passer, Whitlow's athleticism allows him to escape the pocket and extend plays.

Their experience levels also create differences. Smith is far ahead in his understanding of the playbook and responsibilities across the entire offense, while offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said on Tuesday Whitlow probably knows about 10 percent of the playbook. Smith knows every nuance of the offense, including how to audible into different blocking schemes.

"With Max, he's going to be talking to us a lot," Warford said. "He'll be screaming at us, getting us lined up. Jalen is trying to feel his way into it. He's not where he needs to be as far as command of the offensive line, but he'll get there … He just needs to get a little more confidence calling the protections out. He's getting better at that."

Things might not change going forward. Smith was wearing a brace on his left knee at practice this week as a precaution, but he's likely to experience some level of shoulder pain throughout the season. Surgery could be an option, but he won't look into that until after the season.

Taking a hit the wrong way against Florida could have knocked him out for the season, but Phillips said the risk isn't as great this week. Sitting Wednesday out was mostly a precaution, and Phillips said on Thursday there's a "100 percent" chance Smith is the starter on Saturday.

"I'd like to get out and be able to throw with them every day," Smith said. "But it's a lot of the same routes we've been throwing all season, so it's not too bad."


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