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Pace the name of the game as UK installs Brown's offense, QBs compete

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Maxwell Smith threw for 966 yards and eight touchdowns in three full games to start the 2012 season. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Maxwell Smith threw for 966 yards and eight touchdowns in three full games to start the 2012 season. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
On day one of Kentucky football's spring practice, redshirt sophomore Maxwell Smith got 50 percent of the snaps at quarterback. True sophomores Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow split the remaining half.

On Wednesday, the carousel turned. At the second practice, it was Towles who took half the reps with Whitlow and Smith getting a quarter each.

On Friday, it will be Whitlow's turn to show what he can do in a primary role.

Considering all the intrigue surrounding the quarterback position this spring, there's any number of ways all this could be interpreted. Does Smith have the inside track on the three-man battle since he got the bulk of the reps on day one? Or did Whitlow outplay his two counterparts and earn his way into half the Friday snaps?

Forget all that.

Smith, Towles and Whitlow will rotate at quarterback over 15 practices this spring just like the first week. And the reason Smith got the first crack: His last name is first in the alphabet.

In fact, fans and media can probably save their tea-leaves reading for fall camp.

"I'll be surprised if we know a whole lot by the end of spring just 'cause everything's so new," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said.

For now, Brown and head coach Mark Stoops are a lot more concerned about implementing the offense that figuring out who's going to be running it when the Wildcats open the 2013 season in a little more than five months.

True to his word from his introductory press conference, Brown said he expects installation to be complete by the end of Friday's practice. The quarterbacks and everyone else on the offensive side of the ball have had a great deal thrown at them in a very short amount of time. Even so, there's one thing about the new system that sticks out above all else no matter who you ask.

"It's fast," Smith said succinctly. "That's the best way to describe it. It's really fast."

Reporters waiting for interviews at the Nutter Field House on Wednesday got a firsthand look at that speed in watching the final few minutes of practice from a distance. The quarterback awaits either a shotgun or pistol snap with a flurry of activity surrounding him. After just a few seconds, the play begins and the ball is out of his hands via throw or handoff in a blink. Once it's over, it's a frenzy as the offense and defense rush to the line as quickly as possible and it begins all over again.

And it's only day two. Stoops and Brown both say the pace will continue to quicken as players build familiarity with the system.

"It's awesome," Towles said. "We're a team that needs to move fast. Teams like Alabama and Florida with these huge guys, they can afford to take their time and run it down your throat. We're gonna have to, with this Air Raid offense, we're gonna have to move as fast as we can."

In addition to keeping up, the quarterbacks have to deal with an abnormally crowded backfield. But don't worry, Brown isn't trying to marry the Air Raid and the Wing T. The backfield is crowded because Brown is mere feet behind his signal callers shouting instruction with quarterbacks not actually participating in the drill shadowing the movements of the man taking the snaps.

"It's the same as being on the first tee and you're playing golf," Brown said. "You got all these people and you've got to execute a good shot or you're going to hurt somebody."

If that brief description of practice makes it sound like organized chaos, that's by design.

"So when they get in the stadium and I'm over on the sidelines, now it's an easier atmosphere," Brown said. "Same with all the offensive guys. We're on them so hard about pace, I want it to where when they get in that stadium, it's almost an easier atmosphere on game day than it is in practice."

With the speed of practice, the newness of the system and pressure the coaches are trying to create, failure is inevitable, particularly when you consider it takes just one player to derail an entire play. What Brown is hoping for, maybe above all else, is that the Cats react well to that failure - especially the quarterbacks.

"They've got to learn how to prepare. You're not just going to go out here and be an SEC winning team," Brown said. "You've got to prepare and you've got to do it a lot of it on your own time because the NCAA limits us on what we can do. If you want to be a great player and create great teams, you've got to do a lot on your own."

The good news is that Smith, Towles and Whitlow all had at least a partial understanding of the offense Brown teaches coming in. Especially early in 2012 before Smith went down with a season-ending ankle injury, UK used a quick-strike passing attack reminiscent of the one the Cats will employ this fall.

"There's similar plays, but it's just faster," said Smith, who calls his surgically repaired ankle "pretty much" 100 percent. "I'd say it's a lot faster."

As for Towles, he ran a similar offense at Highlands High School with great success, winning three straight state titles and passing for 42 touchdowns against just one interception as a senior. Towles said he feels "at home" in Brown's offense, but stopped short of saying his experience gives him any sort of leg up in the competition that's only in its infancy.

"I feel like myself individually, I'm maybe a step ahead of where I would be if it was another person's offense," Towles said. "But as far as a leg up on anybody else, I'm not really sure."

Whitlow is a bit of an X-factor in the quarterback conversation. His athleticism could add a dimension Brown's highly ranked offenses at Texas Tech and Troy have never had at any time during the last four seasons. Whitlow also showed flashes of the kind of arm talent needed to run Brown's offense effectively in seven starts last year.

Talk about the relative strengths of each of the three is best saved for later though. Right now, Smith, Towles and Whitlow - after going through a season during which UK started four different quarterbacks due to injury - are just happy to be on the field. They've all been through a starting battle before - and in Smith's case, three times - so they know how to handle themselves.

"I love it," Smith said. "It's what it's all about."

For Brown, he knows there's a lot of work ahead, both at quarterback and every other offensive position. But right now, he's getting all he can ask for.

"Our guys are trying hard," Brown said. "We've got the pieces I think; now the pieces that we have got to get better. We've got to get better at every spot. But these kids - as long as they keep preparing, as long as they keep giving great effort - we're gonna have a chance."

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