At his introductory news conference in December, new Kentucky Wildcats head coach Mark Stoops looked into the crowd, searching for a Kentucky legend.
“Where’s Tim Couch?,” the new coach asked. “We’re going to have an offense you’re going to be proud of. We’ll get out there and rip it around a little bit, we’re going to throw it,” Stoops said to the former Kentucky gunslinger.
Stoops knew who he wanted to be his offensive coordinator when he was hired. He targeted Neal Brown, the now-former Texas Tech Red Raiders offensive coordinator and Kentucky wide receiver when Couch was the quarterback during the Hal Mumme Era.
Brown’s teams are known for throwing the ball and throwing it a lot. In 2012, Texas Tech passed for nearly 356 yards per game, second in the country. On the other hand, Kentucky was 102nd in the country, at 176 yards per game.
Kentucky is making it clear that the ball will be in the air a lot at Commonwealth Stadium this fall. The big question is, who will be the person doing the passing?
The Wildcats face one of the nation’s most interesting quarterback battles as spring practice approaches. Three Kentucky sophomores will be vying to be the signal-caller, and Brown has said there is no early favorite.
Maxwell Smith, the original starter from last season, has the most experience. Before a season-ending injury last season, Smith connected on 68.7 percent of his passes for 975 yards and eight touchdowns in a little more than three games. As a true freshman in 2011, Smith was 84-of-153 for 819 yards and four touchdowns, with four interceptions, in eight games.
After Smith’s injury last season, senior Morgan Newton was unable to do the job due to injury, so true freshman Jalen Whitlow was given a shot. Whitlow, a more athletic quarterback, hit on 54 percent of his passes for 801 yards and three touchdowns, with two interceptions, in 10 games. Whitlow also rushed for 206 yards and three scores.
The most highly-touted of the sophomores is Kentucky native Patrick Towles, who was a four-star recruit out of Highlands High School in Ft. Thomas, Ky.
The supposed “quarterback of the future” was scheduled to redshirt last season, but after injuries to Smith, Newton and Whitlow, Towles was forced into action. On the first drive of his career, he connected on his only touchdown pass of the season, a 32-yard strike to La’Rod King against the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Towles was later injured in the game, and played sparingly the rest of the season. For the season, Towles hit on 19 of 40 through the air for 233 yards, with one TD and one interception.
Brown and the new coaching staff must evaluate all three players and make the determination as to which one best fits the new offense. This decision will be crucial, because the “air raid” offense that Brown employs relies very heavily on quarterback production. And if Kentucky is to improve on a 2-10 record from last season, the offense must improve.