Joker Phillips has played coy about the Kentucky Wildcats quarterback battle this summer. At the beginning of practice, he announced the job wide open. Senior Morgan Newton, sophomore Maxwell Smith and freshmen Jalen Whitlow and Patrick Towles would all get looks and reps with the first team. Newton has the most experience, having won in the SEC as a freshman and started two bowl games. But he is coming off both a dismal junior year and shoulder surgery. As Glenn noted below, offensive coordinator Randy Sanders tipped his hand a bit after Saturday's scrimmage, indicating that Newton is not all the way back from his injury.
Given that he was outplayed by Smith last year and missed all of spring practice, its hard to imagine that Newton will be the one to get the call when the season starts. For those of us who follow the team closely, this is a bitter pill on several levels. Newton was a highly touted high school QB and got experience early. He was not particularly impressive as a freshman, but the fact that he got on the field for half a season boded well for the future. As a sophomore, he was beaten out for the starting job by Mike Hartline, a move that was widely criticized at the time but turned out to be a very good call.
Having burned his redshirt as a freshman, Newton could have sat out in 2010 and gained another year of eligibility. Instead, he was used in mop up duty all year, and to my recollection never took an important snap in the regular season. Hartline was ultimately suspended prior to the BBVA Compass Bowl and Newton may have been forced to play regardless. However that may have happened, Kentucky could have started you, me, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Vanilla Ice at QB and it wouldn't have mattered, so pitiful was the entire team effort against the mess of a program that was Pittsburgh on that dreary day in Birmingham.
Newton came into his junior year with a lot of hype from the coaching staff. We were told he was a completely different player. Big things were expected. Once the season started, it was hard to discern what Joker and Co. had seen. In fairness, the offensive line had been similarly built up, and they did Newton no favors. Before giving way to Smith, Newton had not played well. As it turns out, he was replaced because of a severe shoulder injury and selflessly delayed going under the knife in case he was needed later in the year.
Thing is, that's Newton. His career hasn't turned out like he or anyone else had hoped. He's been put in uncomfortable spots on more than one occasion, getting a starting nod over popular teammate Will Fidler as a freshman, not getting a chance to redshirt when he wasn't the starter, being the victim of unrealistic expectations, and fighting for a starting job against players most fans would rather see win out. He's been booed by his own crowds. He's run for his life for entire games and seen numerous passes skip through receivers' fingers. Through it all, he hasn't lost his resolve, gotten surly with the media or stopped being a model representative of the program in any way. I'd love for my son to turn out like Morgan Newton.
Unfortunately, none of those virtues have much to do with being a solid SEC quarterback. I wouldn't want Tyler Bray or Stephen Garcia dating my daughter (especially since she is 11). But I would have crawled to their high schools and carried them to campus if it meant seeing them throw the ball around Commonwealth for a couple of years. There's no script in sports. We have to take the bad with the good.
The Wildcats' staff has its back against the wall. I suspect that Phillips will go with whichever quarterback he feels gives the team the best chance to win in 2012. Unlike many Wildcat faithful, I trust him to make this decision. He has no motivation to screw it up given that his job hangs in the balance. If that guy is Newton, so be it. But chances are it isn't.
So what then for Morgan Newton? If it were anyone else, I'd assume they'd leave the program and try to start at a 1-AA school immediately. I could be wrong, but I don't see that happening. One factor is his brother, Langston Newton, now a Wildcat freshman defensive lineman. But more to the point, I don't think leaving here is in his makeup. Though it would be a natural reaction (remember how quickly Dusty Bonner left once Hal Mumme named Jared Lorenzen his surprise starter in 2000?), Newton just seems like the kind of guy who'd rather roll with the punches.
Here is what I don't want for him: a wasted last year of eligibility spent holding a clipboard.
If Newton is not back to 100%, then Kentucky owes him a chance to redshirt. Assuming he isn't pegged as the starter this year, it is safe to say that he won't regain his spot in 2013. Someone else (most likely Smith, it appears) will have another year under his belt and the freshmen will have had a year to grow. He could use this time to learn another position. Given his knowledge of the offense, a move to tight end or fullback would make the most sense, but he might also help the team as a linebacker or edge rusher one day. With his combination of size and speed, he could be a stalwart on special teams.
Kentucky is a young team. Things might be better next year, but they will still be relying on a number of underclassmen. Having a wise old head around for a couple more years could be nothing but helpful. Newton is 6-4, 240, and while he occasionally looks slow hitting the line, in the open field he is as fast as almost anyone that size on the team. Moving to another position on offense is easier for a quarterback, since he is already charged with knowing where backs and receivers will be on any given play. Several former QBs have helped teams win games at receiver in the past. Kansas's Kerry Meier and Michigan State's Keith Nichol come quickly to mind, though there any many examples. In fact, Meier started for the Kansas Jayhawks as a freshman, was lated beaten out for the job, then went on to become an NFL wideout. Hines Ward played quarterback for the Georgia Bulldogs, and built himself a Hall of Fame career as a receiver in the NFL.
It is hard to say whether Newton could have similar success, or it he could even give the team an upgrade at any one position. I can say with certainty, though, that he deserves that chance. Newton might be reluctant to move. He might consider this. Every year, numerous undrafted college seniors get a chance to attend an NFL camp, many of them make teams or practice squads. The ones who stick on the tail ends of NFL rosters tend to have a variety of skills that their teams can use to fill holes. Newton is not going to make it to the NFL as a QB, but perhaps with a year or two of practice at another position and on special teams, he could put himself in that position in some other way. He might just help the Kentucky Wildcats win some games in the process.
For the sake of everyone involved, it is worth a shot.