Change in confidence gives Whitlow edge in QB competition



By Alex Forkner | @AlexFork3

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Throughout spring practice, much of the buildup to Saturday’s Blue/White game surrounded the three-man quarterback competition. Who would start? Is that the guy in the lead?

When the first team offense lined up for its first snap, all three QBs trotted out into the backfield, then motioned to be split out wide. Running back Raymond Sanders took the direct snap up the middle for 6 yards.

You could almost feel offensive coordinator Neal Brown winking at everyone pondering who the preeminent passer would be.

“Y’all can’t say who started the game,” Brown said with a smile in postgame interviews.

Before too long, however, that lead player would make himself known.

On his first drive, sophomore Jalen Whitlow went 3-of-4 for 42 yards, capping the series with a 16-yards touchdown pass to A.J. Legree to give the White team a 7-0 lead under five minutes into the game.

Whitlow looked sharp on nearly every offensive series he piloted. Splitting time between both Blue and White squads, Whitlow finished 17-of-28 passing for 193 yards and two touchdowns while rushing seven times for 49 yards.

At times, Whitlow was the only bright spot escaping the black hole that was the 2012 UK football season. His athleticism was exciting but raw, his passing erratic, his composure shaky at best.

But this spring, like so much else associated with the program, Whitlow has undergone a metamorphosis.

He picked his runs well, hanging in the pocket until it collapsed and scrambling for positive yardage. His passes were tighter, spiraling downfield and hitting targets. He seemed poised and more confident in his decisions than any other quarterback to see action.

“I just tried to come out here and play my best,” Whitlow said of his performance. “You try to play like you have a chip on your shoulder. Sleep like that, eat like that, so you have to come out and show what you can do.”

What was the biggest change in Whitlow from last fall to this spring?

“Maturity,” Whitlow said. “Last fall, I was a little 18-year-old just trying to grasp everything; everything was moving so fast. But now, the college life — it’s not a big thing anymore — so just coming in and focusing on football and school and being grounded is the biggest thing.”

Last season when Whitlow inherited the starting spot after Maxwell Smith’s season-ending ankle injury, he was forced into the mix, most likely before he was ready. Now, Brown said, he is using that experience to propel his performance.

“I think he’s learning how to prepare,” Brown said. “Getting thrown to the fire, you know, it does one of two things: It can really damage you, or you can find out what it takes and come back stronger than ever, and I think that’s what happened to him.”

Head coach Mark Stoops was equally impressed.

“Jalen did a nice job,” Stoops said. “He has that dimension to run the football and pull it down when something is not there and create. He did a nice job tonight. I was impressed with the way Jalen played.”

Brown said he’ll take time to grade performances when he watches the tape of the scrimmage and that it’s too early to say if Whitlow is beginning to edge out his competition.

But Whitlow’s newfound confidence should shake up the quarterback battle, which going into Saturday was too close to call. It sure looked like he created some separation, based on the outings of Smith (11-of-18, 108 yards, one touchdown) and Patrick Towles (6-of-14, 65 yards, one touchdown, one interception).

“If you have confidence you make plays,” Whitlow said. “You have to carry yourself with confidence. Players carry themselves with confidence. You will never see Peyton Manning carrying himself like a regular Joe.”

Last season, Whitlow couldn’t even compare himself to Cooper Manning — let alone model himself after a Super Bowl MVP.

But spring brings flowers, and Jalen Whitlow is beginning to blossom.