LEXINGTON — Joker Phillips probably did the best thing for quarterbacks Morgan Newton and Maxwell Smith by putting them off limits to the media for the rest of the week.
After all, what can they say to stop the speculation about who Phillips will start at quarterback Saturday afternoon when his Wildcats host Mississippi?
Newton, a junior, injured both his shoulder and ankle in last week’s loss to Mississippi State when he once again had trouble moving the offense. For the season, he is 82 for 172 for 784 yards with eight touchdowns and seven interceptions. In the last four games, he’s a combined 23 for 62 for 194 yards. Smith, a freshman, was 26 for 33 passing for 174 yards against Mississippi State after going just 7 for 19 for 50 yards with two interceptions against Florida, LSU and South Carolina.
Newton was limping after Tuesday’s practice ended. Phillips says Newton will not play Saturday if he can’t protect himself, something the coach says Newton could not do at Tuesday’s practice Tuesday.
That left Smith to direct the offense in practice.
“Max got all the No. 1 reps today, and I think that he did a good job,” Phillips said. “One of the things that we have had issues with is getting signals and getting up to the line and I thought he did that a lot better today.”
Kentucky (3-5, 0-4 Southeastern Conference) ranks 118th out of 120 Division I-A teams in total offense with 265.8 yards per game, and the passing game ranks 115th with 126 yards per game.
Fans who responded to my Twitter question about whom they thought should start overwhelmingly want to see Smith behind center for the first snap against Ole Miss.
Here are some of the Twitter responses:
— From Davelc23: "I want Smith to get his shot. We've seen what Morgan can('t) do."
— From JPNixon: "If it's not Smith then somebody needs glasses! Newton needs to play but not at QB."
— From Samueleverett12: "If he starts Newton, AD should form search committee."
— From Levibooty: "Joker will confuse his loyalties again and put Newton ahead of Kentucky football. Nice man to a fault."
— From Booker_Noe: "Joker doesn't take any risks unless his hand is forced. Newton will start on Saturday."
— From baseballscooter: "M Smith has ability to look downfield while eluding pass rush. Throws well on run and puts the ball where WR can catch. Tough, can throw with touch or drill it. Except for one game has taken care of football (turnovers)."
— From SirMattPowell: "Max Smith b/c he gives us best chance to win and honestly, I don't know if Joker could handle the heat if he started Newton."
— From BRussell10: "Joker will start Newton. Joker will examine practice & say Newton gives the team the best chance to get in the end zone."
— Beau_Walker: "I WANT him to start Smith. Think he starts Newton. Not sure why but Newton is Jokers boy and he rides that horse to the end."
Maybe Phillips is delaying his decision — or at least announcing it — until Friday or Saturday to give Ole Miss more to worry about. Maybe he’s really not sure who he wants to start. Maybe he’s worried about Smith’s inexperience. Maybe he just doesn’t know yet.
However, I think Newton’s ankle will make the decision for him. Newton will want to play — no matter what fans think, he’s a competitor — but there’s no way he’s going to be 100 percent.
Starting Smith will also energize the crowd — and hopefully the team — like wearing black uniforms did last week, and at this point the Wildcats need any energy boost they can get. If Newton is healthy and Smith struggles, Phillips can always use him in relief and maybe that will relax him and allow him to make more plays.
But just remember this — UK’s offensive woes are not solely because of the quarterback play. Still, it’s obvious fans are ready for a change, and Phillips, who insists he won’t listen to fan demands, now has to make a decision that not only will impact Saturday’s game, but also could have a big bearing on the coach’s future at Kentucky.