After freshman quarterback Maxwell Smith completed 26 of 33 passes for 174 yards in Saturday's 28-16 loss to Mississippi State, Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips said he'd get the chance to challenge incumbent Morgan Newton for the starting quarterback job this week in practice.
"We will compete with those two guys this week, see which guy gives us the best chance to win this game," Phillips said. "Both will get reps with the ones and the twos and we'll find out which one and decide which one we feel like gives us the best chance to win versus Ole Miss."
Newton injured his shoulder and suffered a high ankle sprain when he was knocked out early Saturday's game, but has been cleared to return to practice. Phillips said on Sunday he would consider playing both quarterbacks if he felt that gave the team the best chance to win.
Smith had a rocky start to the year, entering Kentucky's loss to Florida in mop-up duty before turning the ball over three times in limited snaps against Louisiana State and South Carolina when Newton was benched. But he was much-improved against the Bulldogs, leading Kentucky on a long touchdown drive and marching them down the field on a second drive that stalled at the Mississippi State eight-yard line late in the fourth quarter.
"I knew as soon as he came in we weren't going to take a step back at all," senior receiver Matt Roark said. "I knew he was ready for that and he showed it."
Newton has struggled at times this season as well. Dating back to Kentucky's loss at LSU on Oct. 1, Newton has completed 23 of 62 passes for 194 yards with three touchdowns and one interception.
Phillips said he might not decide on who the starter will be until after practice on Friday or as late as Saturday morning. Newton and Smith will take equal snaps with the starting offense and second team offense.
In 2009, Newton was named the starter over veteran Will Fidler after Mike Hartline injured his knee mid-season. He started the final eight games of the season, leading Kentucky to a 5-3 record down the stretch. He was given the starting nod again for Kentucky's appearance in the BBVA Compass Bowl after the 2010 season when Hartline was suspended.
He entered the season without any competition for the starting job, but will now have to beat Smith to stay on the field.
"If you're any type of competitor, and I think Morgan is a big time competitor, you want the competition," Phillips said. "When Max Smith was on the sideline, I went over to try to find Morgan, and he's sitting beside Max and talking to him about here's what's going on.
"So a guy who doesn't want the competition would have said, 'Hey, you're on your own, big fellow.' But Morgan was trying to help him, help this football team."
Smith and Newton are the only quarterbacks currently available for game action for the Wildcats this year. Freshman Bookie Cobbins, who signed with Kentucky as a quarterback, is redshirting, and transfer Jacob Russell is sitting the year out per NCAA rules.
Roark, who caught a career-high 13 passes on Saturday, said Newton's experience and arm strength are his biggest advantages over Smith. All three of Newton's completions before he was knocked out of the game went to Roark. The last 10 came from Smith.
"The difference is we have to try and be more aware and help (Smith) out in case he doesn't get the signal," Roark said. "He's not as experienced as Morgan is, so you kind of have to watch after him and make sure he gets the calls."
Roark also described Smith as being confident in the huddle. But he doesn't have any favorite to win the battle.
"Honestly, I don't have a preference," Roark said. "If the ball hits you in the hands, it doesn't matter who's throwing it. You have to catch it."
Freshman fullback D.J. Warren, who was limited during the Mississippi State game and did not take contact in practice last week, is healthy. He won't be limited in practice this week.
Defensive tackle Mister Cobble, who played Saturday but missed part of practice last week, is also healthy. Defensive tackle Donte Rumph, who bruised a knee on Saturday, is expected to return to practice Wednesday.
Tailback CoShik Williams sprained his foot in his first career start Saturday but should be able to practice by Wednesday. Tailback Raymond Sanders, who did not play Saturday with a high ankle sprain, should return to practice Tuesday.