The Wildcats got their worst injury news of the year on Monday, learning Maxwell Smith will have to undergo surgery to repair a torn ligament in his ankle. The sophomore quarterback sustained the injury on the Cats' second offensive play on Saturday against South Carolina. X-rays on the night of the injury were negative, but an MRI on Sunday revealed the extent of Smith's injury.
Smith will be out indefinitely following the surgery. It is not yet known whether he will be able to return before the end of the season. If he is not able to come back in 2012, UK will apply for a medical hardship waiver that would give Smith another year of eligibility.
"He's down, obviously," Phillips said of Smith. "He has worked his tail off to get in the position to be playing major college football."
Saturday night marked Smith's return from a shoulder injury that prevented him from playing at Florida on Sept. 22. He completed one pass for nine yards against South Carolina before he was injured on a Byron Jerideau sack. In four games this season, Smith has completed 103-of-150 (68.7 percent) passes for 975 yards and eight touchdowns, throwing four interceptions. Early in the season, Smith had helped resurrect a passing game in a new no-huddle offense.
"(Smith) was playing at a high level, probably as high as anybody I have been around at this phase of his career," Phillips said.
The loss of Smith is a blow, but the 1-4 Wildcats still have seven games left in this regular season. Phillips will now turn to a pair of true freshmen, Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles, to lead the UK attack. Whitlow has already seen action in two games, while Towles will play for the first time. The coaching staff had previously planned to redshirt Towles this season.
"We'll have to play them both," Phillips said. "It's going to take an effort of both of them. And it could be right in the middle of the series. If it's not series to series, it could be play after play after play, switching them in and out, give them things that they both can do, give them a chance to go out and play and compete."
Whitlow replaced Smith against South Carolina, leading the Cats to a 17-7 halftime lead on the sixth-ranked Gamecocks. UK would eventually fall 38-17 as Whitlow completed 12-of-23 passes for 112 yards and a pair of interceptions. He had a rushing touchdown and 53 yards on the ground, discounting yards lost to sacks.
He came to Kentucky from Prattville, Ala., listed as an athlete, but his arm and ability to extend plays with his feet won him the No. 3 spot on the depth chart and eventually the backup role before being forced into action each of the past two weeks. That experience - particularly playing essentially a whole game against South Carolina - should be a boost in his new role.
"He had 61 snaps (against South Carolina)," Phillips said. "Definitely can build off that amount of snaps in an SEC game for a guy who hadn't stepped foot in a game with that many snaps."
Towles - whom Phillips repeatedly called by the nickname "Patty Ice" at his Monday press conference - clearly won't have the benefit of that kind of experience. After the original decision to redshirt him, the highly touted signal caller began leading UK's scout team. In that role, Phillips has seen a sample of Towles' leadership ability.
"You see a guy that's really confident and a guy that's yelling, screaming and trying to get the scout team jacked up, and now we need him to get our number one in offense on that level," Phillips said.
That's not going to be an easy task. In a span of three full practices, Phillips and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders will have to prepare a player they didn't think would play this season to split time against a Mississippi State defense that has nine interceptions, tied for first in the Southeastern Conference.
"It's definitely going to be a lot faster than he's used to," Phillips said. "He hasn't (gone) against the one defense in full speed. They're coming to sack you."
The good news is that preparing a true freshman to start is not an unprecedented situation for this coaching staff. Last season, Smith - after playing well in relief duty the previous week against Mississippi State - completed 19-of-36 passes for 283 yards and two touchdowns in a 30-13 win over Ole Miss. In 2009, Morgan Newton started in UK's 21-14 upset win on the road against Auburn.
Phillips said it will likely be Whitlow who sees the first action against the Bulldogs, but the starter designation doesn't really apply in this case. Whitlow and Towles will rotate freely, but it will take all week of practice to figure out how the offense will actually look.
"It's still just Monday," Phillips said. "We just found out today, so it's really hot off the presses."
Whether it's Whitlow or Towles that sees the field first, Smith's injury means that UK now has three true freshmen starting. Moreover, when Towles makes his first appearance, he will be the 12th member of UK's 2012 signing class to see the field. A 13th freshman, J.D. Harmon, has played extensively at cornerback as a walk on.
"I can't name one that's not making plays," Phillips said of the freshmen.
The two who will be asked to make the most plays will be Whitlow and Towles. Preparing two true freshmen to play quarterback in the nation's toughest league is a daunting task, but there is a certain mystery accompanying it that makes it fun.
"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."
Tyler also set to undergo surgery
Maxwell Smith wasn't the only Wildcat to sustain a serious injury on Saturday. Junior Dakotah Tyler tore his ACL against South Carolina and will be out for the season. He will work to return to action this summer. Tyler had been pushing Mikie Benton for playing time at safety and his absence will open an opportunity for freshman Daron Blaylock to play more.
Day to day this week will be running back CoShik Williams and linebacker/safety Miles Simpson. Running back Raymond Sanders and right guard Zach West are expected to return to practice on Wednesday or Thursday. Linebacker/safety Josh Forrest and Ashely Lowery will return to practice on Tuesday, while tight end Gabe Correll is out for Saturday.
Arkansas game picked up by FSN
UK's game at Arkansas on Oct. 13 will kick off at 7 p.m. ET on FSN. As a reminder, this weekend's game against Mississippi State will be at 12:21 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.