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August 5, 2013

Cats hope one QB emerges from four-man race

A glance at the four players who will compete for Kentucky's starting quarterback spot for the Aug. 31 season opener:

6-2 | 219 | Fr.
Last season: DNP
Neal Brown says: "Reese has no fear. Reese Phillips, he went out, by far the biggest crowd he's ever had to perform in front of in the spring game and performed admirably."
6-4 | 218 | So.
Last season: 103-150, 975 yards, 8 TD, 4 INT
Neal Brown says: "I think he has potential to be really accurate with the football. And he has been productive when he's been healthy. Now, he has not been healthy a whole lot, which is an issue. But he's been productive and he's accurate with the football and he's done it against good people."
6-5 | 225 | So.
Last season: 19-40, 233 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Neal Brown says: "When you're talking about Patrick, he's got a strong arm and he's a big kid that runs better than most people think and he's got a big time arm talent."
6-2 | 220 | So.
Last season: 87-161, 801 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT
Neal Brown says: "He's a playmaker, one of the better athletes on our football team and he makes plays. Another thing I like about Jalen is he got thrown into the fire and he doesn't shun away and even though the end results didn't show it, he got better as it went on last year."
There are meetings to lead and workouts to organize. There is film to be studied, a playbook to be read. There are drills to be drilled (and drilled and drilled again).

For the players fighting to be Kentucky's starting quarterback - Jalen Whitlow, Maxwell Smith, Patrick Towles and, to whatever extent, Reese Phillips - there has been precious little offseason.

They spent months trying to establish themselves as leaders. Soon, coach Mark Stoops and offensive coordinator Neal Brown will pick one for the rest to follow.

"A quarterback in general is a very power-hungry person," said Towles, a sophomore who played in five games last season. "So you've got these three guys who are trying to take as much grasp of the team as they can, and it's a lot easier to take grasp of a team with the endorsement of the offensive coordinator, which is what we're all fighting for here."

And it's shaping up as quite the fight.

Phillips stood off to the side of his fellow quarterbacks at Monday's Media Day, drawing less attention than the rest from a horde of reporters. Teammates and Brown insist he's in the mix.

But it's most likely the starting nod will go to Whitlow, Smith or Towles, all sophomores who saw significant playing time last season. At this point, it's anybody's job.

So break out the cliches - each of the QBs wants the starting job, but promises to rally around the winner; all remain close friends; etc. - and pick a favorite. As of Monday afternoon, the chase is on.

"See, this is just normal to me, because I've been in this same situation since I was in junior high," Whitlow said when asked about the possibility of bruised egos. "Every single year. Every single year since I was in eighth grade, I've been in this situation: Three guys trying to get a spot."

That meant three guys working all summer long to get a leg up.

Smith, a redshirt sophomore with the most experience of the bunch - he's started seven games over two seasons, four before a season-ending injury last fall - spent the offseason literally working on everything from head (he's a film-study buff) to toe.

"The toe tells you everything," he said. "If your toe's lined up with the receiver, (the ball) should go there."

Whitlow, who started seven games last season and had the most impressive Blue-White scrimmage in the spring, has the fleet feet to make plays on the run but wanted to get up to speed on Brown's "Air Raid" playbook.

"Last year I got thrown in the fire, so to speak, but I think you can learn from failure," Whitlow said. "Last year, we didn't succeed at all. I took that to heart and I used that as motivation and just tried to be a student of the game and mature, improve, get stronger, get smarter and try to be a better player and we can be a better team this year."

Towles, too, honed both this mind and his mechanics. The most highly touted recruit of the current Kentucky QBs, he's hoping to prove he's more than just the big arm Brown cited Monday in discussing his strengths. So in addition to seven-on-seven drills with his fellow quarterbacks, he took some time to himself.

"Our team stuff was together, but the stuff we needed to work on was different," Towles said. "So it's our job to get on our own and fix that."

At some point before Kentucky's season opener against Western Kentucky on Aug. 1, the hope is that one of these QBs will apart from the pack in practice. Brown and Stoops would prefer the competition not linger long into camp.

"But again you have to make the right choice and if it takes game reps, then that's what we're going to do," Stoops said.

That conceivably could mean more than one quarterback seeing the field in the season opener and beyond. But it's nobody's preference.

"I think it's always better if you have one clear cut guy that goes out and wins the job," Brown said. "But if there's no separation, I think that you've seen in the past. Coach (Steve) Spurrier does it a lot, where they used multiple quarterbacks. I think there's scenarios where that can be successful."

It wasn't successful last season when Smith's fast start was derailed by injury and Kentucky played Whitlow, Towles and now-graduated Morgan Newton at various times, a system Whitlow called "awful."

"I don't feel like there's room in no offense for more than one quarterback," Whitlow said. "I feel like a quarterback needs to get his rhythm. I think it screws up the team chemistry a little bit when you're playing multiple quarterbacks."

Smith agreed, saying, "Do you see any NFL teams using two quarterbacks?"

By the time the Cats and Hilltoppers meet in Nashville, the odds are good that one quarterback will have established himself. In the meantime, they'll continue working to earn an endorsement.

"It's going to take all four of us to win games, in my opinion, and it starts now," Smith said. "Obviously, ultimately we're going to get behind whoever's the No. 1 guy. But right now, all four of us have to be leaders and just lead everybody and get better each day."

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