Don’t bother telling Joker Phillips he’s snake-bit. He won’t have any of it.
At the same media gathering where he opened with the news that Maxwell Smith would miss the rest of the season, Phillips said he doesn’t believe in the term, and never has. And when it comes to the hard-luck rash of injuries that just robbed him of his starting quarterback?
“It’s football,” Phillips said. “We understand that injuries come with it.”
They do, indeed, but in this season when Phillips especially needed more things to go right than wrong, the tough breaks have piled up. At the same news conference, the UK coach announced that promising young safety Dakota Tyler also was lost for the season with a knee injury, that senior tailback CoShik Williams was still on the mend and that his backup, Raymond Sanders, now is hurting. Given the loss of presumed starter Josh Clemons in the pre-season, that means the Wildcats are down to their fourth-string rusher, Jonathan George, with true freshman Dyshawn Mobley waiting in the wings.
What was to be a pivotal year has gone sour less than halfway through. The Wildcats unveiled a new-look, no-huddle, jailbreak style of offense that made them competitive against Louisville and brought an entertaining victory over Kent State.
But Smith’s three interceptions put Kentucky in a hole from which it couldn’t escape against Western Kentucky, and then came the big guys on the schedule: Florida and South Carolina. Smith couldn’t play in Gainesville and went down on the second play of the game Saturday night.
Still, there were signs of life against both, even from the defense, but now the boot encasing Smith’s ankle, protecting the torn ligament that eventually will need surgery, not only has ended his season but jump-started that of one Patrick Towles.
Like it or not, Phillips has a quarterback controversy on his hands – or will, soon.
Jalen Whitlow beat out Towles in pre-season camp, outplaying the homegrown all-stater with the legendary stats. Towles’ 42 touchdowns, against one – ONE – interception his senior season at Highlands surely would indicate that he would be the Next Big Thing at UK, wouldn’t they?
Whitlow didn’t see it that way, and neither did the coaching staff, installing him first as the number three QB, then moving him up when it was apparent that Morgan Newton’s surgically-repaired shoulder had rendered him an H-back or tight end.
But now, with Smith sidelined, both young quarterbacks will be prepared, in different ways. The package of plays at Whitlow’s disposal likely will include, if not true QB run plays, the opportunity to tuck the ball and go, as he did both against the Gators and the Gamecocks. Towles will be schooled on staying in the pocket and getting rid of the ball, preferably to a guy in a similar-colored jersey.
Phillips said he and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders now will expand the package of plays Whiltlow can operate, as he learns more of the offense. But, he said, they also must prepare plays that suit Towles’ skill set as well.
“We gotta do both,” he said. “We gotta tweak it more than what (Whitlow) can do and also what this other guy can do, too, what Pat Towles can do.”
And both will see action, Phillips said. “We’ll have to play them both. It might be right in the middle of of a series. Give them things they both and do and give them a chance to go out and compete,” he said.
Whitlow took all the snaps with the first team last Wednesday, as Smith rested his sprained shoulder. Towles has spent virtually the entire fall at quarterback for the scout team – meaning each week he has played the role of UK’s opposing quarterback. Now he’ll hand off that job to someone else (happily so, you’d have to think) and dive more deeply into the Wildcats’ playbook.
“He’s in the meetings every day,” Phillips said. “We’ll see (Tuesday) exactly what he knows. We’ll get him the reps this week to see how much he knows, and what he can do.”
One thing they already know is that, when he’s in trouble, Whitlow can scoot. That’s what helped him slip ahead of Towles on the depth chart in fall camp. “It’s not that ‘Patty Ice’ can’t; he does move around some, but not as well as Jalen,” Phillips said, reminding that Whitlow originally signed as a “slash” – an athlete who played both QB and receiver in high school.
“Patty Ice,” Towles’ nickname, is an homage to Atlanta Falcons signal-caller Matt Ryan, who’s known as “Matty Ice” for his cool demeanor and ability to execute under fire. Towles likely will get a chance to see if he can live up to his moniker Saturday against a Mississippi State team that will roll into Commonwealth Stadium undefeated at 4-0 and ranked as high as 19th in the country.
His will be one more name added to the long list of first-year players seeing action for the Wildcats, as Smith and his staff search for athletes who can make plays against an ever-toughening SEC schedule.
“Everybody thinks it’s easy,” Phillips said, perhaps referring to critics who couldn’t understand why Towles didn’t play against Florida. “It’s difficult to get a true freshman ready to play, with all the things that are involved – especially with some of the defenses we see. We’re about to play our third SEC team that’s coming in here with a lot of confidence, undefeated, in the Top 25. It gets difficult to get the guys ready. “
And then he talked about game slippage – the almost inevitable occurrence afflicting young players who prove they can execute on the practice field, but at game time, when the lights are at their brightest, they go blank. “You don’t really know until they get into games what they feel comfortable with,” Phillips said. “All the things we had practiced with Jalen, some of them, you’d call and motion wouldn’t get called, a shift wouldn’t get called. It might get called in practice but in a game, it’s a different deal.”
It will be a different deal both for the Wildcats and the Bulldogs, who now can toss all that video they’ve been studying of Maxwell Smith. They have a few plays from UK-Florida and most of the UK-South Carolina game to help them prep for Jalen Whitlow. And unless somehow they can come up with game video of the Highlands Bluebirds, they’re in the dark when it comes to Patrick Towles.
This, Phillips agreed, could create some excitement in Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
“I can tell you this: The team we’re about to play has no idea what they’re about to get,” he said. “WE really don’t know what we’re about to get. But we’re going to go for it.”
(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)