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QB position might still be up for grabs for UK, but D End seems set

The Blue-White football spring game is history and when it comes to the quarterback position, I’m more confused than ever (of course, a shiny metal object rolling across a table can confuse me, so take this for what it’s worth).

I thought Maxwell Smith, with a bit more experience than the other two QBs, might show a slight separation Saturday night in the Air Raid offense. He has a strong arm when it comes to intermediate routes, his touch with the deep ball is improving and he has a quick release. We saw that at its best last season as he racked up crazy passing stats before he went down with an injury.

If not Smith, I thought Patrick Towles might be the one who takes advantage of the opportunity to pull the trigger on this QB-friendly scheme, he of the strong arm and better-than-average speed. Towles runs better than most people might assume, given the phenomenal passing numbers he posted in high school.

I hadn’t forgotten about Jalen Whitlow, who spent much of his playing time last season running for his life, when he wasn’t over- or under-throwing receivers. But there were times in 2012 that he showed he could fire a tight spiral through a slender opening, though he lacked touch on deep balls, as most freshmen do.

And as the spring game came to a close, it was Whitlow who impressed me more than the other two quarterbacks – not just with his passing ability, but also with his ever-present threat to tuck the ball and go.

Others no doubt left more impressed with Smith, or with Towles. Neal Brown and Mark Stoops ultimately will have the final say, of course, after weeks of off-season workouts, summer camp and probably the first two weeks of fall drills.

But I think we can all agree on one thing: Za’Darius Smith is a baller.

The Big Blue Nation, Mark Stoops and all the football Wildcats owe a large “thank you” to this large human being, for choosing Kentucky over practically ever other school in America. Smith, listed by one service as the nation’s top strongside defensive end coming out of East Mississippi Community College, elected to follow defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh to Lexington.

SEC offensive linemen scheduled to play against the Wildcats this season will get to know him well. And with Bud Dupree lined up on the other side as a pass-rushing defensive end, instead of a back-pedaling cover man (as he was at times last year in the 3-4), Stoops and company could have the ability to pressure opposing QBs that has been missing from UK’s defense for so long.

Sacks weren’t allowed during the spring game but, said Stoops, “If it was a live game and we were live on the quarterbacks, I think they could have created some havoc. I thought they did a nice job. They are very active and have been very solid all spring.”

That’s as close to a ringing endorsement as you’ll get from a first-year head coach who’s trying to play his compliment cards close to his big blue vest.

Smith was second in tackles for the blue team with six, including five solos and one tackle-for-loss. “It felt great,” he said. “I knew that I could do it. I just got to keep that motivation, making tackles and making sacks. I got to keep working hard.”

Smith figures to be playing for a team that will struggle to break even in victories this coming fall, when he could have signed on with a program that’s already rolling. But he’ll get all the playing time he can handle, for coaches he likes and respects.

“Great coaches,” he said. “The one reason why I came here was because of them. I know what they’re about, and I know how they run their defense. They do a good job at it. As you can see tonight, a lot of plays.”

It was just an intrasquad game, at a school not exactly known for football. But the crowd of 50,000-plus was quite a change from the modest gatherings that show up to see the Lions of EMCC play in Scooba, Mississippi.

“I mean, my heart dropped,” Smith said, then admitted his heart went in a different direction. “It just jumped, like, ‘Oh man.’ I was kind of nervous. I had chills. I had to get over it to make more plays.”

Which he did, and which he figures to keep on doing. Quarterback might be a position still up for grabs, but as the Wildcats left Commonwealth Stadium, we all had a pretty solid idea as to who would be playing defensive end along with Bud Dupree.

Za’Darius Smith introduced himself to the BBN in an impressive way. In a little less than five months, he’ll say hello to Division I football. The guess here is that he’ll be just as impressive – and fun to watch.


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