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Newton using spring to put his stamp on QB position

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4448716.jpegFor two solid years, Morgan Newton has been Kentucky's heir apparent at quarterback.

Coming in as a highly touted prospect, Newton narrowly lost battles for the starting position before both his freshman and sophomore seasons. Along the way, he's had his opportunities to play, stepping in for starter Mike Hartline in 2009 and in Kentucky's bowl game after the 2010 season.

With Hartline graduating and no other experienced quarterbacks on the roster for ongoing spring practices, now is the time for which Newton has been groomed for two years. Now is the time for Newton to make the position his.

Newton is the first to admit that grasping offensive coordinator Randy Sanders' complex offense has been a challenge for him. Coach Joker Phillips pointed primarily to Hartline's firm understanding of the playbook as the main factor that earned him the starting role. Newton still isn't quite to that level, but it's a work in progress.

"He's done a better job of having his eyes where they need to be early in the drop so he can make good decisions," Sanders said. "The better you understand the offense the easier it is to play fast. He's learning the offense better and he understands it better."

Newton has taken the lion's share of the first-team reps thus far in spring practice and that fact has allowed the coaching staff to work more closely with him than any time in the past, especially in the film room.

"I'm coming in on a daily basis and watching the tape," Newton said. "I'm seeing the things I'm doing well fundamentally and some of the things I'm not doing so well and the staff is coaching me up."

The dearth of quarterbacks on the roster, especially experienced ones, has also allowed Sanders to devote more time to some of the more intricate aspects of the position with Newton.

"I'm spending more time teaching him protections than I was earlier (in his career)," Sanders said. "I think he understands protections better."

Although Newton is doing all the things that have been asked of him, spring practices have not always gone quite as the staff would like them to in the passing game. As you might expect with a mostly new group of starters at the skill positions, there have been some bumps in the road.

In spite of the occasional struggles, Sanders likes the attitude he has seen from Newton.

"Morgan has been very eager to learn," Sanders said. "The quarterback is a leader and a point man on offense and I think his attitude has been great and it's kind of rubbed off on our offense. Our offense has a lot of holes to fill and a lot of production to replace but we have a lot of guys that are eager and ready to do that."

Veterans like Hartline, Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke were logical leaders on offense, but their departure calls for Newton, among others, to fill the void.

"It's different," Newton said. "I haven't been in this position before here at UK. I'm definitely taking on a leadership role and a lot of other guys who haven't been in leadership positions are doing so as well. It's a different experience but we continue to carry forward."

It won't happen overnight, but Newton understands that leadership is all-encompassing.

"To be a leader you have to do things right off the field, on the field, in the meeting room, in the community and everything else," Sanders said. "He's off to a great start that way."

With so many important holes needing to be filled on offense, developing chemistry with the new group at the skill positions is another must. Again, that will be a process, but Newton's well-established relationships with teammates like La'Rod King, Jordan Aumiller, Brian Adams and Jonathan George should help.

"A lot of the guys that are stepping up now are the guys I came in with," Newton said. "These are guys I hang out with. We're real close, but we haven't done on it on the field together yet. There's already a chemistry from knowing each other. It's just a matter of continuing to get more reps on the field and things with continue to improve for us."

Even though the Wildcats have to replace a great deal of production, one reason to be excited about the offense for the 2011 season is the unique skillset that Newton brings to the quarterback position. Newton has a big arm, but he is also a dangerous and powerful runner, something that will add an element of flexibility to the offense.

While former quarterbacks like Andre' Woodson and Mike Hartline were adept throwers, they were not major threats on the ground. That limited offensive options, particularly out of the shotgun formation, which is used extensively at UK.

"With Woodson or Mike Hartline getting in the gun, you have a couple of (running) plays," Phillips said. "You either have some type of zone scheme with your running back, or you have to throw the ball.  You didn't have any downhill running game. But with Morgan Newton we've got some downhill running game because you're really in the two‑back offense when you have him back there in the shotgun."

Even though Phillips and Sanders are sometimes caught talking about Newton as if he has already earned the starter's role, this spring is not without an element of competition at quarterback.

Ryan Mossakowski's decision to leave the program certainly reduced the competition Newton is facing, but freshman Max Smith is on campus early and impressed coaches in practices leading up to the bowl game in January.

"We're really excited about what we saw in the five (pre-bowl) practices with Max Smith, and that will continue to be a competition at that position with Max Smith pushing Morgan," Phillips said.

The fact that Smith arrived on campus early will allow him to compete for playing time.

"For him to have any chance to be able to play early or be a factor at all early, spring practice is pretty much a requirement," Sanders said. "Having him here this spring gives him a chance. Randall Cobb played as a freshman at quarterback (without attending spring practice), but his game wasn't necessarily throwing it. It was more run game and things like that. With Max's skill set, to come in and play and be a factor you pretty much have to have spring practice."

Smith's ability to make all the throws on the field is exciting for the coaching staff, but he is facing the same steep learning curve that Newton did upon arriving at UK.

"Max seems to see pretty well downfield and he throws it well," Sanders said. "He can throw the ball well and that helps you get beyond the fact that, right now, with all the plays we put in and all the defenses that have been put in, his head is swimming."

The freshman did not expect to be in the position of competing for a starting job or even the backup job this early.

"It's great," Smith said. "Obviously I didn't expect that right away. I expected that I was going to start at the three and work my way up from there. It's a little bit nerve-wracking, but I'm preparing myself as best I can."

Smith is a native of Los Angeles, so the adjustment to life in Lexington has been major.

"The adjustment to Lexington was kind of a big change coming from Los Angeles," Smith said. "The time change I don't really like, but I'm used to it now and it's not so bad. I like Lexington a lot."

Even though Smith is Newton's main competition, he is not afraid to say he has been impressed by what Smith can do.

"Max is a very talented guy," Newton said. "He's got a lot of tools. He has a big arm and he can make all the throws. He's definitely a guy who aspires to get better every day. He's very similar to me coming in, I think. Our offense is not one you get overnight. It's going to take a lot of preparation, a lot of practice and a lot of reps. There are going to be some things he has to learn and there are going to be some growing pains, but everybody should be excited for him."

The leadership role that Newton now plays calls on him to help Smith in any way he can and that is something he has embraced.

"We have a pretty good relationship," Newton said. "We're pretty good friends. It's my job to try to give him as much information as I can to help him to try to make Kentucky better. That's what's important at the end of the day."

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