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After sitting out at Florida, Smith likely to play this weekend

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Maxwell Smith sustained a shoulder injury against Western Kentucky, forcing him to miss UK's game at Florida. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) Maxwell Smith sustained a shoulder injury against Western Kentucky, forcing him to miss UK's game at Florida. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Standing on the sidelines on Saturday wasn't easy for Maxwell Smith. The sophomore had taken hold of the quarterback position through three games, deftly running Kentucky's no-huddle offense, and he had no intention of letting go.

Unfortunately for both him and the Wildcats, the decision on whether he would play against Florida was out of his hands. Smith reaggravated a shoulder injury sustained last season against Georgia and Joker Phillips, with the counsel of UK's training staff, opted to sit him out to avoid a potentially more serious injury.

Left to his own devices, it may not have been the decision Smith would have made, but he recognizes it was the right one.

"It's not what I wanted to do, but I knew that's what was best for me and that's the decision Coach decided to make," Smith said on Wednesday. "I really wasn't a hundred percent and I could have taken one hit and been out for the rest of the season or something. I went with what the coaches said and I was alright with that."

Because of the fact that he sat out last weekend, Smith is in position to play this Saturday against South Carolina at much closer to full strength and Phillips anticipates he will be available. Smith returned to practice on Tuesday, taking reps with the first team.

"I felt like I threw it pretty well," Smith said. "It was painful, so maybe I wasn't able to snap on some balls like I wanted to, but I made every throw. A little bit inaccurate, but I'll be alright. It will all come."

Smith and the coaches worked with the training staff to devise a schedule to best prepare him for the Gamecocks. He took a day off from throwing on Wednesday, taking only a few snaps and handing the ball to running backs. In his place, Jalen Whitlow took reps with the first team. Smith will throw again on Thursday. Originally, Smith was set to throw only on Wednesday, but he wanted an extra day of work.

Perhaps the most concerning thing about Smith's injury is something he'll have to continue dealing with. When he originally injured his AC joint last season, it was the first time Smith had ever hurt his shoulder. After tweaking it for the second time in 10 months, Smith doesn't expect to play without pain at any point the rest of the year, but he also doesn't expect to be limited in terms of effectiveness.

That's good news because, in Smith's absence, UK's passing game sputtered. Whitlow and Morgan Newton combined to complete just 8-of-27 passes against Florida for 60 yards and three interceptions. With Smith back on the field for practice on Thursday, the receivers' energy level picked up significantly.

"The guys, when Max is out there, you can tell the receivers practice at a different level, definitely," Phillips said. "I don't know if it's a rhythm, but I can tell you this: there's a little bit more enthusiasm."

In an offense that relies so much on timing in the passing game, it's natural to wonder how Smith's time away could affect his ability to connect with receivers as consistently as will be demanded against a South Carolina defense allowing fewer than 10 points a game. Smith understands the thought process, but he's also not too concerned.

"It's not too bad," Smith said. "I'd like to get out and be able to throw with them every day, but it's a lot of the same routes that we've been throwing all season and we've been connecting on."

Smith's injury is not limiting him off the practice field, so that's where he's making sure to get all the work in that he can.

"It's really just about watching film," Smith said. "That's the biggest way I got to be prepared is to understand what they've going to do on defense."

Barring any further setbacks, Smith is likely to play on Saturday. But in the meantime, the Cats are preparing for contingencies. After coming on in relief of Newton last weekend, Whitlow is being groomed to be UK's backup the rest of the season. The true freshman may not have a complete grasp on the playbook yet, but he does have one thing on his side and it happens to be what allowed him to beat out fellow first-year quarterback Patrick Towles for the No. 3 spot in the first place.

"He can move around a little bit better in the pocket and has more ability to escape," Phillips said. "You better be able to escape against the guys that we're playing against."

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