Kentucky changes QBs; Smith to start this week
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky coach Mark Stoops knew getting the Wildcats on track would take a lot of work.
Saturday’s 35-26 loss to Western Kentucky reinforced that notion and raised more questions for the first-year coach. He addressed an important issue on Monday, naming sophomore Maxwell Smith to replace Jalen Whitlow as starting quarterback for Saturday’s home opener against Miami (Ohio).
“Just because we’re naming Max, we’re not putting that loss on Jalen whatsoever,” Stoops said during his weekly news conference. “There’s an awful lot of people that could do things better, starting with me. ... Max came in there and did some good things and Jalen did some good things as well, just like we thought he would.
“There were some critical errors from both quarterbacks. We need to improve at that position. We just feel like Max gives us the best opportunity this week.”
Stoops had given the impression up to the opener that both Whitlow and Smith would play against the Hilltoppers, though Whitlow started and played the entire first half Saturday.
The 6-foot-4 Smith will make his first start Saturday in nearly a year. He started four games last season and threw for 975 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions before sustaining a season-ending ankle injury against South Carolina.
Smith entered the game in the third quarter and led two fourth-quarter scoring drives, but couldn’t rally Kentucky (0-1) past the Hilltoppers. Smith finished with 125 yards and a touchdown on 8 of 13 passing.
Whitlow was 10 of 15 passing for 78 yards against WKU and rushed for 75 yards and a touchdown on seven carries.
Stoops said that who the starting quarterback will be is a relatively small issue in Kentucky’s broad outlook. The Wildcats were outgained 487-419 and missed several opportunities to close the gap or go ahead.
The coach said there are issues to resolve at every position and made his point when the depth chart published Monday featured five new starters and shake-up among the reserves.
Much of the depth-chart reshuffling was among younger players who saw their first action under a different system run last season by former Wildcats coach Joker Phillips, who was fired in November.
“But even some of the older guys, myself included, made some mental mistakes that we can’t afford to make,” senior linebacker Avery Williamson said.
Stoops said the reality of inheriting a 2-10 team hit him against Western Kentucky, when 11 freshmen played. Even with those factors, the coach added that the loss still stung.
His approach to rebounding from it is acknowledging the road ahead and offering encouragement along the way. Both will be needed with a schedule that gets considerably tougher after Miami: the Wildcats’ next four opponents are No. 9 Louisville, No. 10 Florida, No. 6 South Carolina and No. 1 and two-time defending national champion Alabama.
Despite Saturday’s disappointing result and the upcoming challenges, the coach remains confident that he and players will answer lingering questions in the timetable he set.
“As a coaching staff and as players, we believe in what we’re doing,” he said. “Of course I want the excitement here, I want the fans here and I want the people behind us. I just have a hard time saying bad things about our players. It is what it is.
“Again, I accept responsibility for that. I know exactly what we’re in. I knew what I was getting into, and I know what I’m into. We’re not going to flinch. We’re going to do the best thing we can to move forward and win games.”