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Smith emerges from competition a better quarterback

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Sophomore Max Smith was named UK's starting quarterback on Monday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Sophomore Max Smith was named UK's starting quarterback on Monday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Throughout fall camp, the Kentucky coaching staff had asked a great deal out of Max Smith and Morgan Newton.

The two quarterbacks had each guided the Wildcats to wins in their careers. Smith and Newton - who also happen to be friends off the field - assuredly believed in their ability to win many more in 2012. That's what made the competition for the starting job the pair was asked to enter into the last two weeks so tough.

If either had brought a sense of entitlement to the proceedings, things could have gone south quickly.

"If you're the right type of person, competition's always good for you," offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. "Sometimes guys come in and they want things handed to them and usually those are the ones you don't want when it gets tough or in the fourth quarter. Guys that thrive on competition usually become the good players."

Fortunately for Smith, Newton and everyone involved, UK had two such players. But only one was going to come out on top.

On Monday, head coach Joker Phillips tabbed Smith as his team's starter with the season opener against Louisville 13 days away. Smith, a sophomore, made eight appearances and three starts in 2011, throwing for 819 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions on 84-for-153 (54.9 percent) passing.

"You have to make the tough decisions and be accountable for them," Phillips said. "This is one of the tougher decisions that I have had to make."

Newton will serve as Smith's backup, while the battle for the No. 3 spot continues between freshmen Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow.

It was getting to the point where not having yet named a starter would begin hurting preparation for the Governor's Cup game against the Cardinals, but Phillips would not have hesitated to keep the competition going. He opted to put it to an end because he felt confident in saying Smith gives the Cats their best chance to win, lauding his accuracy and improved grasp of the offense.

"It was a big enough separation that we thought we needed to go ahead and announce it today," Phillips said. "If it wasn't, we would have carried it on another week."

In making his announcement, Phillips revealed that a final decision was made on Sunday night. On Monday morning, he summoned Smith and Newton into his office to inform them.

"I felt great," Smith said, recounting his emotions upon learning of his starting role. "That's what I've been working for since I was a little kid."

Based on all the snaps he got during the spring and with Newton still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, Smith held an edge in the quarterback competition, but his performance in Saturday's scrimmage - the second of fall camp - may have put him over the top. According to comments from coaches, the scrimmage was marked by big plays, but more importantly, a methodical 14-play, 98-yard touchdown drive. Even though it was the running backs - the position that now features the most competition and intrigue - carrying most of the load, Smith's presence was important.

"We had some other real good drives as well, but that was definitely the highlight of it," Smith said. "For me, I think I only threw maybe four passes on that drive. It was great. I was perfectly fine with handing it off every play."

There will come a time when Smith is called on to air it out, but his contentedness with pounding the ball on the ground shows the kind of maturity needed out of a starting quarterback.

For Newton, the news that he will not be starting the opening game of his senior season cannot be easy to take, but in answering questions about it, he handled himself with aplomb and even a sense of humor.

"People will start liking me again now that I'm the backup," Newton said.

Newton, who was replaced by Smith in 2011 due to injury, is more than familiar with the rigors of playing in the nation's toughest league. He has made 17 starts and won some big games, including ones against Georgia and Auburn during his freshman season.

Those victories are certainly still prominent in his memory, but he doesn't anticipate having any trouble turning into another coach on the sideline for the good of the team. He proved that last year in delaying surgery in case his team needed him. Even so, he's twice been forced into action because the starter in front of him was knocked out of competition and once been replaced due to injury, so he knows it doesn't take much for another opportunity to arise.

"That's just the nature of the business," Newton said. "The SEC's a tough league so there will probably be opportunity. I'm not wishing anything bad, but you just got to be ready."

Getting ready also now becomes Smith's task. After one final training camp practice on Tuesday, UK will set its sights on Louisville, going into full preparation mode for the rivalry showdown.

There will be plenty of time spent game planning, but Sanders wants Smith's focus on "playing quarterback" and all that entails. By the nature of the position, that includes leadership.

"When you're the quarterback, you might not be deemed the captain, but you're the captain," Phillips said. "He's got to lead guys on defense also. They've got to believe in him and I believe they do."

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