Stoops: Towles is in charge and on a long leash

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Patrick Towles heard the words every new quarterback has to crave:

“He has the keys.”

Mark Stoops said them at his news conference Monday, and he’d said them the week prior, after telling the assembled media that it was Towles who emerged the victor from the quarterback competition that had stretched from the beginning of spring practice, through the Blue-White game, past the hot summer months and into fall camp.

Towles is the starter. He has the “keys;” meaning, he’s behind the wheel of what’s supposed to be a high-octane offensive machine.

When Stoops revived the metaphor on Monday, it was in response to a reporter who didn’t get to finish his question, which apparently was designed to examine the possibility that Towles gets off to a bad start. Would that, the implication might have been, mean one of the backups would be inserted?

Stoops stopped him early. “I’m going to cut you off,” he told the inquisitor. “I know where you’re going. No, he has the keys.
“He’s not on a short leash,” Stoops said. “He is the starting quarterback.”

Words that will keep the sophomore signal-caller smiling, at least on the inside. They will serve him well when the tough times come, because they will. And when they do, a portion of the Big Blue Nation will rise in full throat, demanding change because, well, changing the quarterback is what you do whenever the offense struggles. Right?

Uh, no. Well, sometimes. But not always. And that’s (in part) why college coaches earn those fat paychecks. They have to weather the storm of criticism and either stick with a struggling quarterback, or know when it’s time to make the change that’s in the best interests of his team. The timing of such a move rarely, if ever, coincides with the demands of the fan base.

Midway through 2008, the first post-Andre’ Woodson season, Mike Hartline struggled under center. His passes either sailed over the heads of receivers, or skittered to the Commonwealth Stadium turf at their feet.

A friend of mine who’d been watching UK football for more than five decades was hot happy. “Mike Hartline,” he told me confidently, “is the worst quarterback we’ve ever had.” And this was after Hartline had been named SEC Offensive Player of the Week, after a win over Middle Tennessee State.

It only complicated matters that the most dependable pass-catcher on the Kentucky roster was also a supremely-gifted option quarterback who had wowed fans in a victory over a bad Norfolk State team. Randall Cobb, the BBN argued, should be our starting quarterback.

And at one point, head coach Rich Brooks handed HIM the keys. But Hartline eventually returned to the starting job and later that season, helped lead the Wildcats to a victory in the Liberty Bowl, where he was named Most Valuable Offensive Player.

It’s doubtful that Towles will have that kind of season in this, his first as the Day One starter. The chances of the Cats making a bowl game are slim. Kentucky has improved; back-to-back strong recruiting classes have raised the talent level, but it’s young talent. And it includes a true freshman quarterback named Drew Barker.

When fans clamor for a change, it will be Barker’s name they chant, not Reese Phillips. Barker is a northern Kentucky product; big, strong with good feet and a cannon for an arm. Two years ago, they demanded a change to a similar QB. Bench Maxwell Smith, they roared; forget about Jalen Whitlow – bring in the freshman phenom from northern K-Y, the kid with the big arm and sparkling resume’.

Give us Patrick Towles, they said.

And they got him. Smith had gone down injured the week before; Whitlow got the start against Mississippi State but was ineffective. On came Towles, who connected on 5-of-6 passes for 71 yards and a touchdown, before falling with a sprained ankle.

He sat for two weeks and appeared in four more games, but never approached the efficacy he showed against MSU.

The following season brought a new coaching staff, the commitment by Barker and the assumption by most of us that Towles would be wearing a different uniform soon. To his credit, he endured, perhaps calling upon the same kind of stubborn toughness he might have inherited from his grandfather. Jim Bunning spent 16 seasons in Major League Baseball, where he developed a reputation as an ornery cuss of a pitcher who backed down from nobody.

Whatever it was that sustained Towles through this year’s QB competition has paid off. He has the keys. And Mark Stoops says he’s going to keep them.

(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK Radio/TV Network. He can be heard Monday-Friday at 6 p.m. on “The Big Blue Insider” on WLAP-AM 630 in Lexington.)