Morgan Newton got off to a disastrous start for Kentucky last season. The starting quarterback in last year’s season opener, Newton is coming back from off-season surgery on his throwing shoulder as well. So it’s no surprise that sophomore Maxwell Smith was named UK’s starting quarterback yesterday.
The only real surprise is that it took so long for Joker Phillips to make that call.
It’s possible that Phillips and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders wanted to have a true competition in fall camp. It’s possible that they knew Smith was their guy all along — he did take over for Newton last season — but they wanted to push him. It’s also possible that Smith didn’t take the job and run with it in the way the coaches had hoped (though they have said otherwise).
Regardless, Smith is the right man for the job. Newton looked flustered under fire last season. And freshman Patrick Towles — “the next Tim Couch” to many Wildcat supporters — is too young for a coach on the hot seat to turn to. Smith makes the most sense. And he showed improvement over the course of last season.
Smith first got playing time against Florida, LSU and South Carolina last season. The results: 7 completions in 19 attempts for 50 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. Not good.
But after Newton went out with an injury, Smith took over in full and began to make strides. In his final four appearances of the season (against Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Georgia), he completed 77 passes in 134 attempts for 769 yards, four TDs and two interceptions. Much better.
More telling, his yards-per-attempt improved from a ridiculous 2.63 in his first three games to a somewhat healthier 5.73 in his last four contests. If he can make improvements again this season, the Wildcat offense should be nowhere near as anemic as it was for much of last season.
For his part, Smith says he now knows Kentucky’s playbook. Sanders admits that his young pupil has made improvements, but he laughed at the “knows the playbook” notion:
“He’s still wrong, but the nice thing now is at least he knows what he didn’t know. There is still more for him to learn. He’s worked very hard at it and he’s so far beyond where he was. Last year I used the analogy that we were teaching him Algebra I. Well, he’s way beyond that point, but I don’t think he’s quite into the (trigonometry) part of it yet.”
He may not have to be. As UK fans learned last year, even a steady quarterback like Mike Hartline — who was hardly a crowd favorite in his day — can be good enough to win some games. In fact, if Smith can even sniff Hartline’s senior year production (3,178 yards, 23-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio), he’ll be a Bluegrass State hero this fall.