The coaching staff had high hopes for Smith and the offense that had been installed during the offseason and heading into the fall. Early returns were strong. In four games played, which is realistically three because Smith went out early in his fourth game of the season, Smith threw for eight touchdowns and averaged 243.8 passing yards per game.
But with Smith's season-ending injury against South Carolina, true freshman Jalen Whitlow stepped in in an emergency role. He kept the Wildcats in it to halftime, but USC figured out the limited freshman and exposed the quarterback in the second half. Fellow true freshman Patrick Towles also saw some playing time as Whitlow and Towles were expected to split time for the rest of the season. But Towles also sustained and ankle injury that held him out and kept him from getting as much in-game experience as he had hoped.
Smith, who could potentially receive an extra year of eligibility due to the timing of his injury, will be ready to compete for the starting job in the spring. The key word is "compete," as all three of the top quarterbacks on the roster could be in the same class if Smith is awarded the medical redshirt. And according to new offensive coordinator Neal Brown, the position is up for grabs.
"It's a good problem," said Brown. "And it's really not a problem, it's a situation. We've got three guys who can play quarterback in the Southeastern Conference. It is going to be an open competition."
One of the first orders of business for Brown was to try and look at his personnel. After seeing what he had at the quarterback position, he and the staff decided that they would wipe the slate clean and allow all three quarterbacks to split reps in spring practice. The competition will then carry itself into the summer as they prepare for the 2013 season.
His message to them heading into the spring: "Let's get better."
"I said, 'Hey, I am not going to spend a whole lot of time watching what you did before," said Brown. " 'There are going to be some fundamental things that are nonnegotiable that we are going to do. Y'all are going to start on the same level playing field, best man wins.' "
Brown's offense simple but effective
Brown played in and is a disciple of former Kentucky head coach Hal Mumme's "Air Raid" offense. It's an offense that has spread throughout the college ranks, with slight variations and disguises.
"The base plays that you are going to see on Saturday afternoons when Coach Mumme was here, those plays are the same," said Brown. "Those base plays are really the same plays you are seeing at West Virginia being highly successful, at Texas Tech, Oklahoma State is using those same plays, Oklahoma is using those base plays."
And those plays haven't changed much since 1997 when Mumme brought his offense to the bright lights of SEC football. But at its base, the offense is a simple one that his players should have no problem picking up. Even from the first day of practice.
"It's really a simple system," said Brown. "The first three days of spring practice we'll install the whole system. It's a system that the quarterbacks will be able to learn in a two- to three-week period while I'm gone recruiting."
The offense is centered around the passing game, and with the simplicity of the offense, the quarterbacks should not have any trouble grasping it early on. But from there, those quarterbacks have to have skilled receivers to deliver on the other end.
Brown is looking for "good skill people" to get them the ball out in space and make defenders have to make open-field tackles. It's a key part of the offense. The spread offense does just that: the manner in which the offense lines up spreads out the defense, creating more one-on-one opportunities for the offense.
Tempo is another key to the success of Brown's new offense. They will run the offense fast and efficiently to keep the defense on their heels for most of the game. It wears out the defense and gives the offense more opportunities to put up points. But while the passing game might bring the excitement, the running game will play an equally important part.
Brown noted that he and his assistants must make a concerted effort to run the football to balance the offense and take advantage of some personnel mismatches on the other side of the ball. In the SEC, it's important to be able to run the football to keep the defenses honest. Luckily for Kentucky, the running-back position were the bright spot on the offense last season and they have a great experience returning for 2013.
Brown's family 'fired up' even after warning
It had been a dream of Brown's to one day coach at Kentucky. After all, he is a former Kentucky wide receiver from the nearby city of Danville. Brown is now back home and much closer to his family.
That proximity and comfort was also what worried him most about taking the position of offensive coordinator at his alma mater. Brown is worried about his family being exposed to the realities of the profession he is in.
"There was a little bit of hesitation from a coaching perspective because I have been gone other places," said Brown. "At Texas Tech I was 16 hours away. You guys know how the profession is, you have created some of the things in the profession so you know how it is, but there is a lot of pressure and that is the way it should be really."
After many discussions with his family and friends, everyone got on board with the decision and it didn't take long before Brown was back in blue.
"They were isolated from that when I was away, but now it is going to be at their front door," said Brown. "Those are things, when it got serious, were the discussions I had with my family and my wife's family just to make sure they understand.
"They do and they are fired up about it."
Brown's message to in-state recruits: 'Come be a hero'
One of the reasons Mark Stoops was hired as the next head football coach at the University of Kentucky was his recruiting connections in Ohio, Florida, and other recruiting hotbeds across the country. One of the most important recruiting grounds for the Wildcats, however, will be Commonwealth itself.
As a former in-state player himself, Brown knows how it feels to suit up for the blue and white after growing up a Kentucky fan all of his life. Brown mentioned former in-state Kentucky legends like Tim Couch and Andre Woodson. Those players became heroes in the state after illustrious careers as Wildcats.
What is Brown's message to Kentucky kids?
"Come be a hero," said Brown.
For those players that do, life is good.
"You look at the guys that play well at the University of Kentucky that are homegrown products," said Brown. "They come back here to live, and they have good lives."
Brown knows firsthand. After all, he's a product of it: a former player who has gone out and made a name for himself on the national circuit. But the former Wildcat has remained a household name for Kentucky fans. He's a prime example that if you do things the right way, you can always come home.
"You're at a place where you have a personal investment, where you grew up a fan," said Brown. "I was one of them. I can tell you that. If you can do that at the state school, then it's going to be a special thing.
"And to do it, there's a good opportunity that you're going to stay employed for a long time here."