Max Smith, sophomore - Smith pulled off a rare feat in his first season as a Wildcat, starting multiple times as a freshman and even winning a Southeastern Conference game. The Granada Hills, Calf., native arrived on campus early, positioning himself at No. 2 on the depth chart from day one. When Morgan Newton went down to injury, Smith stepped in. He had some rough moments early - particularly in road trips to LSU and South Carolina - but settled in against Ole Miss and Mississippi State before suffering an injury himself that kept him out of the finale against Tennessee. With over a year and a half in Randy Sanders' system, he could be poised to take a big step forward in 2012. He has been lauded for his leadership during the spring and summer, organizing film-viewing sessions with teammates.
Morgan Newton, senior - Newton won the starting job heading into last season, but struggled in large part due to ineffectiveness along the offensive line and at wide receiver. Like Smith, he was forced into action as a rookie, and led UK to an upset win at Auburn. His size and athleticism make him a dangerous threat in the running game. He underwent offseason shoulder surgery which kept him out of spring practices and is still recovering from the injury.
Patrick Towles, freshman - Towles was the centerpiece of UK's 2012 signing class. A signal caller out of Fort Thomas, Ky., he won Mr. Football honors after completing 171 of 279 passes (61.3 percent) for 3,820 yards with 42 touchdowns and only one interception en route to a state title. Towles was given a chance to compete for the starting job when he arrived on campus this summer, but is still in the process of learning a new system. Whether he plays this season or is redshirted, he has a bright future ahead.
Jalen Whitlow, freshman - Whitlow was listed as an "athlete" by most recruiting services, but the coaching staff is giving him a chance at playing his high school position. He quarterbacked Prattville (Ala.) High School to a state title and a top-25 national ranking. Whitlow's speed and elusiveness make him dangerous out of the backfield, but the 6-foot-2, 202 pounder has impressed with his arm as well. He is a candidate to see the field early in "Wildcat" sets.
3. Towles or Whitlow
The quarterback position was the story of the fall, as all four players listed above competed for a starting job. Eventually, it came down to Smith and Newton and the sophomore won out.
Last season, the importance of the quarterback position was on display. UK completed just 50.9 percent of its passes last season for 135.6 yards per game and as many interceptions (12) as touchdowns. However, pinning that ineffectiveness or the offense's struggles on the quarterbacks alone would be unfair and inaccurate. Injuries along the offensive line and inconsistency at wide receiver made life difficult on Smith and Newton, who split time under center in 2011.
Smith, though, did show promise in his first collegiate season. He was forced into action on the road against LSU and South Carolina and the results weren't pretty, but when he got a second opportunity at extensive playing time, he took major steps forward. In splitting back-to-back games against Ole Miss and Mississippi State, Smith combined to complete 45-of-69 (65.2 percent) passes for 462 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.
With a year of experience under his belt, expect Smith to look much more like the quarterback he was late in the season. Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders has said during fall camp that Smith is "way ahead" of where he was last year in terms of understanding the offense, while Phillips has praised his accuracy and ability to move the offense. Smith might not always throw a perfect spiral and he is still getting his feet under him in Sanders' system, but he has the confidence of his coaches and teammates.
UK has the luxury of one of the most experienced backups you're ever likely to see in the SEC. Newton is still regaining his form following shoulder surgery, but did enough during fall camp to make Phillips wait two weeks to name a starter. His relationship with Smith is also a plus, and Smith will likely be relying on his good friend on the sideline all season.
Whitlow and Towles add depth to the position, as well as a promising future. They are also very different quarterbacks. Towles is a big-armed quarterback with good size and athleticism, while Whitlow is even more dangerous than Newton running the football. The Wildcats tried to make it through an entire season in 2011 with just two quarterbacks on the roster, but Whitlow and Towles allow them to not have to do the same this season. The coaches have not yet named a No. 3 quarterback between Towles and Whitlow, but when they do, redshirting the one who does not earn the spot is a likely course of action.
With Smith under center to start the season, the team believes it has improved significantly at quarterback, but the progress made at other positions will dictate how much that improvement shows. An improved running game with an stable full of solid backs could make life much easier, while receivers Demarco Robinson, Daryl Collins, DeMarcus Sweat and A.J. Legree will look to add consistency to an experienced core of La'Rod King, E.J. Fields and Gene McCaskill.
It all starts in the trenches though, and we'll be taking a look at UK's offensive line on Thursday.