First, the true freshman quarterback played his way into the No. 3 spot on the depth chart in camp. As the opening weeks of the season wore on, his coaches began to groom him for the backup role. In a win over Kent State, Whitlow played the final series for his first collegiate snaps.
At Florida, Whitlow came on in fourth-quarter relief. The outcome wasn't in doubt, but his first playing time in a conference game was meaningful, particularly in an environment as hostile as The Swamp.
A week later, Whitlow was the backup to the returning Maxwell Smith, prepared to play after getting some of his first reps with the first team. It turned out he needed to be ready, as Smith went down with an ankle injury on Kentucky's second offensive play. The game was Whitlow's the rest of the way.
Last week, with Smith sidelined indefinitely, Whitlow knew he would be starting against Mississippi State. However, the plan was for him to rotate with fellow freshman Patrick Towles, at least until Towles left with an ankle injury of his own.
It hasn't happened by plan - because no one plans to lose two quarterbacks in two weeks - but the last few months have been building to this Saturday for Whitlow. As UK hits the road to take on Arkansas, Whitlow goes into the game knowing for the first time in his career that things are on him and him alone.
"I'm the guy this week," Whitlow said.
As UK (1-5, 0-3 Southeastern Conference) prepares for a game against Arkansas (2-4, 1-2 SEC) in Fayetteville, Ark., (7 p.m. ET, FSN) Whitlow has been getting approximately three-quarters of the snaps with the first team. Even when Morgan Newton is working with the ones to make sure he's ready in case of the unexpected (or in the case of this season, the not-so-unexpected), Whitlow is working with the twos.
"I told Jalen he's going to be tired each day this week when he leaves the practice field this week, because I need to get him every rep I possibly can," offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said.
Through now four games of action, Whitlow has completed 23-of-50 passes for 199 yards. He also has a pair of touchdowns and 37 yards on the ground. Impressively, Whitlow has just two turnovers - both interceptions as the Wildcats were trying to mount a late comeback against South Carolina - but Sanders and head coach Joker Phillips are demanding more. The way Whitlow took care of the ball against Mississippi State is great, but that has to be balanced with aggressiveness.
"I don't know if the concern about turning the ball over kept him from throwing it, made him a little hesitant to do that," Sanders said. "That's very possible. Sometimes interceptions happen, but if you ever start playing too conservative or start playing scared at quarterback, it gets hard to pull the trigger. And I'm not sure that's not what happened Saturday."
The good news is that Whitlow has consistently shown an ability to maintain an even keel through mistakes and a willingness to learn from them.
"I've never seen a guy that's a freshmen that's as calm, as laid back, comes off the field and can communicate with you what he's seeing," Phillips said. "He makes mistakes and he understands (them)."
After Saturday's loss, Whitlow was forthright in evaluating his own play, saying he simply did not throw the ball as well as he's capable of doing. Since then, he's been focused on mechanics to make sure it doesn't happen again.
"I'm focusing on technique, footwork, getting my body lined up to deliver the ball," Whitlow said.
Halfway into his first season at UK, Whitlow already has a significant amount of experience. But each time he's played, he's had company. Against Kent State, it was purely mop-up duty. Against Florida, he was replacing Newton. Against South Carolina, he assumed Smith would play the entire game. Against Mississippi State, Towles was there to shoulder some of the responsibility.
Now, he's on his own, but in some ways that's been a good thing.
"He's played against some pretty good opponents and I think he's more than ready now to go down and be the starter," Phillips said. "One of the things is he has no choice now."
Also without a choice are Kentucky's young defensive backs.
The statuses of experienced players like Martavius Neloms, Mikie Benton and Ashely Lowery are very much up in the air due to injury, meaning senior Cartier Rice and sophomore Eric Dixon will play alongside true freshmen Cody Quinn, J.D. Harmon, Zack and Daron Blaylock and Fred Tiller.
"We expected them to help us this year; didn't expect them to be starting in our fourth SEC game," Phillips said. "But we'll play them, throw them out there and see how it goes."
The challenge for the defensive backfield is a big one, as senior quarterback Tyler Wilson leads a Razorback passing attack that averages 301.3 yards per game and ranks among the top-25 nationally. Arkansas lost four games in a row after climbing to No. 8 in the polls in early September, but is fresh off a 24-7 win over Auburn.
"You name it; they can do it," defensive coordinator Rick Minter said. "Tyler Wilson's a great quarterback. They've got good, ample receivers."
Cobi Hamilton headlines that receiving corps with 38 receptions for 677 yards and four touchdowns. Against Rutgers, he set SEC and Arkansas records with 303 yards receiving.
Most of the youngsters that will try to limit Wilson, Hamilton and company were on the field three weeks ago when UK traveled to Florida. So too were Whitlow the offensive players that will play major roles. Because of that, Phillips expects to see a football team better suited to deal with a tough road environment.
"I don't anticipate this one will be a real shock to them," Phillips said.