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Kentucky Wildcats Football: Why Max is the Right Call

Mark Stoops is making the right decision by installing Max Smith as the starting quarterback. The reasons why have nothing to do with the Western Kentucky game or Jalen Whitlow.

Andy Lyons

Let's start with this disclaimer: Last Saturday's disappointing loss to WKU is not on Jalen Whitlow. Whitlow played the first three quarters of the game in much the manner we should have expected. He did positive things with his feet, didn't turn the ball over and was reasonably accurate on short to mid-range throws. Kentucky lost because of its total inability to control the Hilltoppers' offense and because WKU was. . .well. . .a better football team. If  26 points on offense with only one turnover doesn't prove sufficient for an SEC team against a Sun Belt foe, its hard to put that on a quarterback.

With that said, Mark Stoops had to name Maxwell Smith the starter for this Saturday's game against the Miami (Ohio) RedHawks. Yes, he looked very good throwing the football. He wasn't just picking apart a soft, prevent zone. Smith completed passes over the top of the Toppers' defense to streaking receivers who appeared to get open in ways they hadn't earlier in the game. He rallied the Cats to within a 'doinked extra point of being in the game with a couple of minutes left. That's probably enough. Add to that Kentucky's anemic 75 yards passing through three quarters and the fact that WKU dropped 3 potential interceptions in those quarters, and there are plenty of football reasons to make this move.

But the most compelling argument for starting Smith is more overarching than the results of one game or, in fact, one season. Kentucky is selling recruits on one focal point on each side of the ball. On defense, it's what Stoops and D.J. Elliot did at Florida St. and their knack for developing NFL talent. On offense it's the AIR RAID. Period. Neal Brown has promised the greatest show on turf. For three quarters, Kentucky's offense looked much as it did last year. It is difficult to impossible to go "hurry-up" if a quarterback isn't completing a high percentage of passes. A team cannot set up the run in an Air Raid without a tired defense on its collective heels. Despite a decent running game, Kentucky looked stagnant, always struggling to get its footing. This wasn't what we're used to seeing from teams using this style of play.

These things have to happen for Kentucky to have continued recruiting success on the offensive side of the ball. After seeing the Cats in Nashville, I think that's where the focus needs to be. Let's get real for a moment. This year's team is going to win between two and four games. We thought it might be a rough ride, and this past weekend confirmed that beyond a shadow of a doubt. The now is what it is. The future is still wide open.

I admire the staff's conviction to "win now", and don't want to sound fatalistic. But the truth is, regardless of who gives our team a better chance to win (I personally thing Max does) it's clear that Smith provides a better opportunity to play a fast paced, entertaining brand of football. As a fan, I want to be entertained, sure. But even as a more nuanced observer, I want recruits to be entertained and decide that Kentucky is where they should play.  I'd trade a win in 2013 for another four star receiver in 2014, or for assurance that we keep the guys we have.

This is by no means the end of Jalen Whitlow. First and most importantly, Smith's injury history mandates the need for a strong backup. Beyond that, I'd like to see the staff use Whitlow at QB situationally , at times that maximize his chances of being successful. Finally, I'll join a chorus of people saying this: Whitlow is too talented not to be on the field with this team in some capacity. The team needs a package with him at receiver designed to get him the ball in space.

One final thing before we leave this topic. I, for one, am not going to get down on the staff for starting the the season with Whitlow as QB1. By all accounts, he earned it. After seeing the Cats' first string defense on Saturday, I also question what kind of look our scout team D could have given the coaches as to which quarterback would perform better in game action. In other words, let's move forward, not look backwards. There's little point in that at this juncture.

A couple of notes from Saturday:

* As the game clock wound down, I was reminded of a quote from one of my all-time favorite movies "The Bad News Bears". Coach Buttermaker is preaching patience and remind this kids, "Rome wasn't built in a day." Oglivie (the smart one) deadpans, "In fact, it took several hundred years."

*I was surprised that Kentucky sat in its base 4-3 and rarely blitzed, especially once it became clear that the vanilla act wasn't going to get it done.  Still, poor execution doomed the defense. In addition to failing to hit and wrap, the Cats (defensive backs especially) were way too passive. If a team plays its corners 10 yards off the ball, that's a strategy decision based on personnel. When those same corners stay in that range and wait for runners to reach them rather than aggressively running forward to make plays, that's a lack of execution. If they cannot react faster and close, they have to play tighter.

*From the uniforms to the crowd to the helmets to the new coach, WKU has it going on. If I were a fan, I'd be really excited. Until Petrino inevitably leaves, it will be a fun ride.