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Quarterback questions to be answered on Saturday

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Jalen Whitlow and fellow true freshman Patrick Towles will both play quarterback for UK on Saturday. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics) Jalen Whitlow and fellow true freshman Patrick Towles will both play quarterback for UK on Saturday. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
The loss of Maxwell Smith to a torn ankle ligament was quite a blow for the Kentucky football team. Through the first quarter of the season, the sophomore quarterback had been at the center of an offensive revitalization. He had efficiently run UK's brand-new fast-paced attack, ranking among the nation's leaders in passing yards and spreading the ball to a bevy of receivers.

Without question, his absence will be felt, particularly since his replacement will be a freshman duo with about one game's worth of experience combined and a week of practice with the first team.

The UK coaches have little idea what they will get out of Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles this weekend, which is terrifying. But at the same time, that mystery makes things quite interesting.

"We lost a guy that can make everybody's job a little easier," offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said. "We lost a guy that can erase some mistakes, but these guys can erase mistakes in their own way. It will be exciting. It will be exciting one way or another."

That excitement stems from the fact that Whitlow and Towles are two very promising, very different players. Whitlow seems to have a bright future as an athletic quarterback with an arm to boot, while Towles arrived in Lexington with a cannon for an arm and the kind of swagger classically associated with his position.

When the two take the field on Saturday at 12:21 p.m. ET against No. 19 Mississippi State (4-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference), the future of UK football will be on display. The game won't reveal exactly what Whitlow and Towles will become over the next few years, but it is going to show exactly where they are now.

"We're going to throw them out there and see what they can do," head coach Joker Phillips said.

The time for the two youngsters has arrived ahead of schedule, meaning Phillips and Sanders have had to scramble to ready them for the crucible that is an SEC Saturday. Whitlow got a flavor for it this past  weekend, helping pace the Wildcats to a halftime lead over South Carolina before the Gamecocks caught on in the second half, stymieing Whitlow and company.

That's where Towles comes in.

The no-huddle offense shortens the learning curve of a new quarterback in the UK system, allowing signal callers to do less actual signal calling than in a traditional offense, but one week is still too short a time to bring either completely up to speed. Instead, Whitlow and Towles have each been assigned a more manageable portion of UK's package designed to best suit his strengths. The result will be a rotation between the two.

Phillips knows Whitlow will be at quarterback for the game's first series, but beyond that, there's no telling what will happen.

"We're going to try to put them in positions to do things they do well and I'm sure there will be some overlap, but there will be some differences also," Sanders said.

No matter which is on the field, Mississippi State's veteran secondary will present a significant challenge.

The Bulldogs list three seniors and a junior among their four starters at cornerback and safety and that group has led a defensive unit that ranks among the nation's best in forcing turnovers. MSU is tied for second in the NCAA with 15 turnovers forced, nine of which have come on interceptions, also tied for second nationally. Mississippi State had three interceptions in its lone SEC game, a 28-10 win over Auburn.

"You can't stare down receivers," Phillips said. "You've got to anticipate receives getting in and out of their breaks and get it out of your hand. You can't throw them down the middle late. These guys have nine interceptions, lead the nation in turnover margin, and a lot of that has to do with their secondary."

Recognizing both the challenge and opportunity facing them, Whitlow and Towles have been at full attention all week. There have been mistakes along the way, but not for lack of effort.

Perhaps most impressively, neither has been shy about speaking up. Heading into the season, Phillips called Smith a team leader by nature of him playing the quarterback position in spite of his sophomore classification. Whitlow and Towles have already come to realize that applies to them as well, which has caught the attention of someone who knows a little something about playing quarterback at UK.

"Most times you see freshmen, they're really quiet," said former UK star and current graduate assistant Andre' Woodson. "They won't do a good job trying to take over the offense. They'll be timid to jump in there and just try to take leadership. Both these guys have done a wonderful job of just trying to be vocal, trying to go out there and show leadership skills and really command the offense."

Whitlow has had a somewhat easier road to travel in that respect since he already had some experience. However, Towles went from running the scout team as a redshirt player to a co-starter in a matter of days. A player more timid than Towles may have taken some time to get his feet under him in that situation, but Kentucky's reigning "Mr. Football" has jumped right into the fray.

"Since the day he walked on campus, he's acted like that, he's carried himself that way," Woodson said. "He has the demeanor that he's always confident, he's very sure of himself and that can be a great thing. Hopefully for him, he just continues that way."

Towles can't wait for his moment to arrive. He has tweeted about his excitement this week and on Thursday before practice told Phillips he wished the game were in two hours rather than two days.

Even so, all that pregame talk will go out the window just after noon on Saturday. At that moment, no one will be able to predict what might happen, not the fans in Commonwealth Stadium, not Kentucky's coaches and not Mississippi State's.

"I think it is exciting because I can tell you this," Phillips said. "The team we're about to play has no idea what they're about to get. We really don't know what we're about to get, but we're going to go for it."

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