When Neal Brown was involved with Kentucky football as a player he had a front row seat for Tim Couch's improbable run to becoming a Heisman trophy finalist. Now that he's returned as the Wildcats' offensive coordinator one of his most critical decisions will be who plays quarterback in his incarnation of the 'Air Raid' attack that made Couch a star.
Maxwell Smith threw for 975 yards and eight TDs in 2012 before getting hurt
Who will that be? Brown said Maxwell Smith, Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow will all get an opportunity to win the 2013 starting quarterback job outright beginning when Kentucky takes the field for spring practice.
“The way we're going to handle it, it's going to be an open competition,” Brown said. “All three guys will split the reps a third in spring practice, carry that competition through the summer into fall camp and see who the best man is.”
The evolution of Kentucky's offense in the next few seasons will likely rely heavily on which of those three players ultimately wins the job, and remains healthy. Smith sprinted out of the starting gate in 2012 by throwing for 975 yards and eight touchdowns against just four interceptions in three games before shoulder and ankle injuries limited him to just two snaps over the final nine games. Whitlow and Towles were pressed into duty earlier than anticipated and both looked like true freshmen, with the two combining to complete 52.7 percent of their passes for 1,034 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions.
The competition could be further complicated by that fact that all three will be sophomores next season if Smith is allowed to use 2012 as a redshirt season because of his injuries.
“It's a good problem,” Brown said. “It's really not a (problem). It's a good situation. We've got three guys that can play quarterback in the Southeastern Conference. How we're going to handle that is, it's going to be an open competition. All three guys (are) good people, very interesting guys, excited about a fresh start. And it's going to be a fresh start, not only for them, but for all the guys on our whole football team. I'm only controlling the offense, but it's a fresh start.”
Brown's system is certainly quarterback friendly. While it relies on the run a bit more than that attack Hal Mumme, Mike Leach and Tony Franklin ran at UK with Couch and Dusty Bonner at the controls, the passing attack was prolific at Texas Tech with Brown as offensive coordinator. In his three seasons in Lubbock the Red Raiders ranked at least seventh nationally in passing offense each season, culminating in a 2012 campaign that averaged 361.9 yards per game, good for second in the country. During that same span, Texas Tech quarterbacks threw 112 touchdown passes against just 35 interceptions.
“It's really a simple system,” Brown said. “The first three days of spring practice we'll install the whole system. It's a system that the quarterbacks will be able to learn in a two to three week period while I'm gone recruiting. They can watch some videos and really have a good idea of what we want to do when I get back.”
Brown, who remains close with Couch, said his initial meetings with the three scholarships quarterbacks on UK's roster went well.
“I said, 'Hey, I'm not going to spend a whole lot of time watching what you've done before. There's going to be some fundamental things that are non-negotiable that we're going to do. You all are going to start on the same level playing field: best man wins,'” Brown said. “I don't have any ties to any of the three of them. I'm going to coach them like they're my own, like I recruited them and the whole deal, but the best man is going to play.”