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By Alex Forkner | @AlexFork3
Spring is the season for passing judgment — just ask the three guys battling for UK’s starting quarterback position.
With the hire of offensive coordinator Neal Brown from Texas Tech came new offensive opportunities. Those who watched the Cats struggle on that side of the ball are hoping for an Air Raid renaissance under this new staff.
Last season under Brown, the Red Raiders ranked No. 12 in total offense, averaging 501 yards per game. UK’s offense, juggling two inexperienced freshmen and an ineffective Morgan Newton after starting quarterback Maxwell Smith’s season-ending ankle injury, ranked No. 113 in the country, averaging 315 yards per game.
Does the presence of Brown on the sideline automatically add almost 200 yards to the box score?
Tech’s success was founded on years in the system, starting when current Washington State head coach Mike Leach took the job in Lubbock in 2000.
Quarterback after quarterback and receiver after receiver learned and played in the system for years.
So far, these quarterbacks have had a month.
“We do some really good things, and there’s some things that are head scratchers,” Brown said of his quarterbacks. “Some of that is we put a lot on them. Some of that is we’ve just got to focus better. There’s some good and some bad. Really not much separation. Just when I think there is, the one I think is the bottom will have a good day. They’re coming along.”
Smith, now a junior who was off to a decent start last season before being benched with injury, has the most experience of the three.
But the change in staff gave him a virtual restart. Smith had to adapt to a new style of play, something he said he’s improving on.
“Just understanding the offense, understanding where coach (Brown) wants my eyes to be on certain plays. My footwork has gotten a lot better, tempo on my drops has gotten much better, anticipating throws like coach wants has gotten much better. I’m making strides every day and that’s what I need to do.”
Sophomore Patrick Towles entered his freshman season with hype up to his eyeballs, but saw limited snaps after his own ankle injury. In the first drive of his college career, however, Towles was 5-of-5 passing for 71 yards and a touchdown.
He knows that it takes a prolific passer to make this scheme go.
“Looking at the offense doesn’t give you the yards,” Towles said. “The quarterback (Brown) had at Texas Tech last year was really good. I think he was the most accurate passer in the country, and I think that all of us have the skill set to be that guy, to engineer the highest scoring, highest power offense in the country.”
Brown said the essence of the Air Raid boils down to the players on the field and their abilities.
“What everybody (who runs this offense) does is they see what their personnel is, they go into situations, they evaluate the personnel and use it to the best of their abilities and I think that’s what we’ve got to do,” Brown said. “And to be honest with you, in the evaluations, I’m still trying to figure out exactly how to put the pieces we have, then incorporate the pieces we have coming in the summer, give those guys two weeks to show what they can do and let’s figure out the best way to run this offense.”
Evaluations could lead to a guy like sophomore Jalen Whitlow, who saw the most time under center last season, to stay in the race for the starting job. Whitlow falls into that well-known category of dual-threat quarterbacks, who are able passers but posses the speed and agility to run when they need to. Whitlow said the “wide- open” nature of Brown’s offense could catalyze his ability to tuck-and-run.
Come Saturday, the three quarterbacks will put their skills on display for the viewing public for the first time. It’s the last time the coaches will see them before fall camp starts in August.
“It is a last impression, and that’s the way I approached it with them,” Brown said. “It’s a last impression as a coaching staff, but it’s your first impression for the fans. I think that’s probably more important, really.”
Afterward, 55,000 fans will be passing judgment on who’s best at passing footballs.