April 26, 2014

Towles starts as Cats' QB chase continues

So he's saying there's a chance.

There is a chance, yes, that Mark Stoops will review his Kentucky football team's Blue-White Spring Game -- a 38-14 win by the mostly-first-string Blue Saturday at Commonwealth -- and name a frontrunner to be the Wildcats' starting quarterback in the fall.

There's a chance, Stoops said, that he and offensive coordinator Neal Brown -- once they've reviewed the film of Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips and Drew Barker from Saturday's game, and each player's body of work over the course of spring practice -- and proclaim one the starter.

There's a chance.

"Probably pretty slim, but there's a good chance," Stoops said with a laugh after Saturday's game.

This much seemed clear after Saturday: Towles, however slightly, is leading the pack.

The 6-foot-5, 236-pound redshirt sophomore took the first snaps with the starters -- "don't read into that overly," Brown said -- and completed 11 of 15 passes for 126 yards playing, as all three quarterback candidates did, for both the Blue and White teams.

Asked if Towles -- who didn't throw a touchdown but led three scoring drives -- is Kentucky's starter as of now, Stoops said, "We'll see."

"Overall I felt like it was a pretty good day," Towles said. "I had one blemish. I threw a pick to (Za'Darius Smith). He didn't score, which I can kind of live with I guess. But overall, I think it was a good day."

It wasn't a bad one for Phillips (10 for 17, 74 yards, two touchdowns), but not the best for Barker (7 for 19, 74 yards, one touchdown), an early enrollee who graduated high school in December.

"We've all gotten a lot better," Phillips said. "Pat's gotten better. Drew, he's done a lot of good things. I've done a lot of good things. So I feel bad for the coaches, because we've all done a lot of really good things and a lot of our mistakes are the exact same mistakes."

No quarterback separated himself, but it was easiest to spot improvement in Towles, who unlike his competitors has played games at the college level.

The sophomore -- who played in five games as a true freshman and redshirted last season after falling behind Jalen Whitlow and Maxwell Smith in the race for the starting spot -- admits he wasn't worthy of starting either of his first two seasons.

But the lifelong Kentucky fan said he worked hard to make his third time the charm. His release is shorter, his feet quicker.

"They were slow, then they were average," Towles said. "Now they're fast."

As much as Towles improved, he hasn't solidified anything. Not yet.

There's a summer ahead, and a fall camp. Whatever small lead he might have can evaporate.

"I'm proud of the effort Pat has done and I really like the other two, as well," Stoops said. "I think the other two are great quarterbacks and certainly had some great days this spring. So we'll see."

Phillips' strength is in his steadiness -- "I think I've had a real solid, consistent spring, and I think that's what you want from a quarterback," he said -- and Barker's in his pure talent. He was the most highly-touted of the three in high school, but also is the least experienced.

'I think we're all right there," Barker said. "Obviously, today I didn't do as well as I'd like to, but throughout the course of spring, I felt like I did some good things."

He, Towles and Phillips will have to continue to do some over the summer.

New NCAA rules, Brown noted, allow coaches to work with players without a ball, so unlike in previous years the quarterbacks won't be without coaching supervision. But they'll still have significant responsibilities away from coaches in mastering the offense and working with receivers.

"They know what we're looking for," Brown said. "They've got a ton of film from the spring that they can watch, and I fully expect when we get back together the first week of practice in August, we'll be a lot better. They'll be a lot better."

They already have improved. And maybe Towles has improved the most.

But even if he's slightly ahead, the sophomore is determined not to fall behind in the offseason.

"Every part of me -- every single part of me -- wants this," Towles said. "I'm doing everything I can do get there. If I don't get there, it's not the end of the world. But I'm gonna do everything I can to."

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