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Quarterbacks keeping competition friendly

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From left to right, quarterbacks Jalen Whitlow, Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips and Maxwell Smith will compete for the starting role during fall camp. (Chet White, UK Athletics) From left to right, quarterbacks Jalen Whitlow, Reese Phillips, Patrick Towles and Maxwell Smith will compete for the starting role during fall camp. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It wasn't created intentionally, but there is a quarterbacks wing at the locker room in the Nutter Training Facility.

There, players are assigned spaces based on their numbers, which means Maxwell Smith, Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips and Jalen Whitlow - who just switched his jersey from No. 13 to No. 2 - naturally spend a lot of time together.

"All four of our lockers, they're right next to each other," Smith said at UK's annual Media Day on Monday. "So we're always talking to each other or we're always hanging out."

With fall camp set to start on Monday, that arrangement would seem to be a potential source of trouble. In the coming weeks, those four will campaign to be the starter at quarterback on Mark Stoops' first Kentucky team, but none of the parties involved are concerned what the combination of competition and proximity could do to their relationships.

"Keep everything on the field," Whitlow said. "Once we're off the field, we're friends, teammates. We hang out, we talk, laugh, joke. It's not a controversy at all."

The coaching staff feels the same way.

"I think it starts with the demeanor and how Coach Stoops and I handle it, and I think they are good people," said offensive coordinator Neal Brown. "I don't think any of those guys are jealous by nature. I think they are really good, solid human beings."

Though they may have that in common, the four contenders bring different strengths to the table on the field.

Smith is, relatively speaking, the veteran of the group. Even though Smith is still only a redshirt sophomore due to an ankle injury suffered last season, he has started seven games over the last two years. Particularly in 2012 - when Smith averaged more 320 yards passing in his three full games - he played well in a hurry-up offense slightly reminiscent of the modified Air Raid attack UK will run under Brown.

"I think he has potential to be really accurate with the football," Brown said. "And he has been productive when he's been healthy. Now, he has not been healthy a whole lot, which is an issue. But he's been productive and he's accurate with the football and he's done it against good people."

In spite of his previous injury problems, Smith reports he is feeling good after a spring and summer with UK's High Performance program.

"I'm the strongest I've ever been, probably the fastest I've ever been and the healthiest I've ever been," Smith said.

Even so, Smith won't be outrunning Whitlow anytime soon. The true sophomore, according to Brown, is one of the best athletes on the team and, due in large part to his running ability, Whitlow was effective at times after he was thrust into the starting role following Smith's injury. Whitlow was even better at the Blue/White Spring Game in April, throwing for 193 yards and two touchdowns to go with 49 yards rushing.

Whitlow has targeted the "little things" for improvement this offseason, namely footwork and knowledge of the offense. And as he has made the transition from freshman to sophomore, he has also embraced that playing quarterback is about much more than individual play.

"I think I've been more of a leader this summer, just trying to be more vocal," Whitlow said. "I'm not a big hoorah guy, but I try to be a little bit more vocal and serious once we get on the field."

Perhaps even more than Whitlow, Towles has tried to improve his footwork.

"I had May, June and July to fix that and I believe that I've made great improvements in that," Towles said. "And it's shown through the productivity. I feel like I've been throwing the ball way better than I had."

No one has ever doubted Towles' raw throwing ability.

"When you're talking about Patrick, he's got a strong arm and he's a big kid that runs better than most people think and he's got big-time arm talent," Brown said.

Towles showed flashes of that ability in five games last season, particularly in a 5-for-5 performance in leading the offense to a touchdown during his first-career drive against Mississippi State. After that, Towles experienced many of the growing pains expected of a true freshman pressed into service.

With Brown's help, Towles has come to realize that his struggles were psychological as much as they were physical.

"One thing Coach Brown talks about is no matter what decision you make, you've got to be fully confident," Towles said. "If you're fully confident, your feet are going to be in line and everything like that. When your feet slough off is kind of when you're wondering, 'Where do I go?' I developed that knowledge I need and it's going to fix everything."

Even though he is the lone quarterback not to have played a college down, Brown sees some of that confidence in Phillips - the wildcard in the competition. The freshman arrived on campus in January and "showed no fear" in completing 10-of-12 passes for 75 yards and a touchdown in front of UK's record spring-game crowd.

Stoops and Brown will now go about the task of evaluating the foursome. Practice time will divided equally, as will first-team reps. The ultimate decision will be Stoops' - though Brown will have plenty of input - and there is no specific timetable set for it. Additionally, neither Stoops nor Brown ruled out the possibility of playing multiple quarterbacks, but they did make it clear their preference is for one to emerge and take hold of the job.

"This is going to be about we, not about me," Brown said, recalling his message to the quarterbacks in a meeting on Monday morning. "This is how the reps are going to be distributed and everybody is going to get an opportunity to prove themselves, and the most productive guy will win."


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It will be important to have great play from the QB position this year.

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