It’s only about two months before Kentucky opens the football season with a must-win game at Louisville - if the Wildcats hope to salvage a respectable 2012 season - and still there is no consensus on who will be UK’s starting quarterback.
It could be senior Morgan Newton, an effective replacement starter for an injured Mike Hartline in 2009, a backup to Hartline in 2010 and a starter in 2011 before he was ineffective and injured.
It could be sophomore Maxwell Smith, who showed flashes of brilliance after taking over from Newton last season but was also injured and ineffective at times.
Or it could be true freshman Patrick Towles, Kentucky’s Mr. Football last season and perhaps the best in-state quarterback product in 20 years.
But who should it be? Or who will it be?
Former Kentucky quarterback Dusty Bonner was asked to make a case for why each player should be the starter — not pick a starter or explain who he thought was the best player, but merely to make an unbiased case for why each player could be the starter:
Newton has played in 23 games and completed 183 of 352 passes for 1,764 yards and 14 touchdowns with 10 interceptions.
He was a highly-touted four-star high school quarterback in Indianapolis and went 5-3 as a freshman with wins at Georgia, Auburn and Vanderbilt in 2009, when Hartline was injured. But last year, he was just 83 for 174 passing for 793 yards and eight touchdowns with seven interceptions in 10 games.
“When you are talking just potential — and you have got the potential to be terrible as well as great — you look at Morgan, and to me he has the tool set you want. He’s athletic, big. He has a good arm,” said Bonner, who helped UK reach the Music City Bowl in 1999. “I do not know how things did not go well at the beginning of last year, but it wasn’t just him. Everybody was not flowing well. He did not get a lot of help.
“If you just look at him, he has all the tools you want. He can run. He has good size. He is a kid that you can say it is nice to have that weapon on the field behind center. He is a big weapon and has the potential to be more of a weapon than the others because he can run.”
Smith sat out the 2010 season to grayshirt before enrolling at Kentucky so he could go through spring practice in 2011. He got his chance late in the season and was 84 for 153 for 819 yards and four touchdowns with four interceptions in eight games, including three starts. He was named to the Southeastern Conference all-freshman team by the league’s coaches.
“Maxwell Smith produced on field. His number one asset is that he has had some success,” Bonner said. “He has that gunslinger attitude. Sometimes when you are young it is easier to have that because you have nothing to lose, and what do they expect out of you? As you get older and more is expected of you, it can be more difficult mentally.
“He has got a good arm. I don’t think he is scared. He has proven that. He will get hit and still throw the ball. He has thrown interceptions doing that. But he has the moxie you want, and he produced on the field. You can have all this potential and what if, but nothing matters except production and he produced.
“But also remember that Morgan, early in his career when not much was expected, he also did produce.”
Towles was a Kentucky prep sensation and led Highlands to three straight state championships. He threw for 3,820 yards and 44 touchdowns with just one interception his senior year and also ran for 589 yards and 15 touchdowns. During his career, he threw for 7,429 yards and 73 touchdowns and ran for 1,718 yards and 38 scores.
“Truthfully, Towles comes in very highly touted, and a kid like that will always get fan support. He is a freshman with a big name,” Bonner said. “He can play footloose and fancy free. Everything he does will be icing on the cake. He’s so young. He’s got all the tools and size anyone could need.
“I never watched him play a full game. Personally, I think the best thing that could happen to any quarterback is to be redshirted. I don’t like taking a kid and throwing him in the first (game of) his freshman year. A lot of playing quarterback is confidence. You go out as a freshman and play on talent alone, and people will get excited about everything he does.
“It might be just me, but for a quarterback’s career, I think it is best to be redshirted as a freshman. I know Towles is a big body and probably better prepared than most to play in college, but give him a year to let his body mature and get his mind up to speed because it is different in college. Don’t set him up to where there is a possibility of failure and run the risk of messing him up for his career. It’s not worth it.”
How to Decide
So if Bonner had to find a way to settle the three-player quarterback battle, how would he do it? What would be the deciding factors for him?
“Going into this year, if I am on the coaching staff, I am saying there is a three-way competition and you better produce to win the job,” Bonner said. “As a staff, you help everybody as much as you can, but it is about touchdowns and points. Whoever puts the team in the best position to score, he will be the guy. If you understand the offense best but score no points, that’s not the point of what we are trying to do offensively.
“Not everybody will want to hear this, but at the end of the day this might be the three strongest quarterbacks on a Kentucky roster at the same time in a long time, or maybe ever. I think they just have to go out and let the best man win the job and take the first snap against Louisville. If that is Towles that produces more than the other two, then he is the guy.
“But I am not that concerned about who has the strongest arm or fastest legs or most potential. I want the guy who produces and who has the respect of his teammates. It’s got to be a guy who works hard. Someone who gets there early and stays late. Someone who works his butt off in the film room.
“The system at UK now is more difficult than I ran in college. It’s more a pro-style set and takes longer for everyone to learn. If a quarterback knows it and the receivers don’t, it won’t work. If receivers can’t get open, it won’t work.
“Whoever is the starter, I would set the game plan to get him some easy throws early to build confidence. I think any of the three could be really good if their confidence gets high. It would not surprise me to see any of the three be a great quarterback.
“But you don’t plant a tomato plant and then get mad at the end of the week when you have no tomatoes. It takes time. Quarterback is the same way. You have to give a guy time to develop and produce, but bottom line is that it is all about production and nothing else.”