After being denied a sixth year of eligibility as quarterback at San Diego State, former Kentucky signal-caller Maxwell Smith is back in Lexington this summer, rehabbing his knee and working out at the University of Kentucky’s Nutter Field House.
As a quarterback at Kentucky, Smith played in eight games and started in three as a freshman in 2011. An ankle injury limited him to only four games as a sophomore. He played nine games as a junior (starting four), but a shoulder injury that led to rotator cuff surgery forced him to miss three games in 2013. He stayed at Kentucky where he graduated in 2014, but his shoulder was still not to the point where he could play that fall.
Smith opted to transfer to San Diego State for his senior season, where he earned both a full scholarship as a graduate student and the starting job for the Aztecs. After starting the season 1--3, Smith guided the Aztecs to seven straight victories before suffering a torn ACL in the last game of the regular season. At that time, he led the NCAA in most passes without an interception. SDSU went on to win their last three games, including the Mountain West Championship Game over Air Force and the Hawaii Bowl over Cincinnati.
Smith completed 110 of 200 passes for 1,529 yards and 13 touchdowns with just two interceptions while at SDSU. He set an Aztecs record by going 10 games — including the Nevada contest — without an interception. He underwent successful surgery last December to repair his torn ligament.
Below is an interview with Smith, providing an update on specifically what he’s doing in Lexington, his future plans, what it was like being a starter for UK, and what advice he might have for a young quarterback entering the season with the starting job.
John Cox (JC): Talk about what you’re doing now on a personal level; what brought you back to Lexington and what you have planned or what goals you have set for the future?
Smith (MS): I’m back in Lexington to train; I got in touch with Coach Stoops and asked him if I could use the facilities and he was really cool about it. So I’ve been going five or six days a week doing some personal training and then a little bit of rehab on my knee. I’ve also been throwing a little bit with Drew (Barker) and Stephen (Johnson), and with the receivers, too. I’m just here trying my best to make everyone better, including myself. I never got to perform at pro day because of my knee surgery, so my ultimate goal is to try and get a workout with an NFL team next year, and show them what I’m capable of doing. Even if it’s the CFL, I just want to do everything in my power to continue to play football and get to that next level.
JC: Favorite moment as a player at Kentucky?
MS: My first career start against Ole Miss really sticks out more than probably any other. Not only was it my first start but it was an SEC game and we beat them. It’s not like we were winning a ton of SEC games at the time, so it just felt good to start off with a win.
Besides that, even though I was hurt, when we beat Tennessee my freshman year and ended the streak; that was something I’ll never forget. Just to be part of a historic win like that was pretty unbelievable. But it did hurt me not being able play because my shoulder was still in serious pain.
JC: What was it like the first time you got the call to enter the game as a true freshman? How did you feel when it happened?
MS: The first time was just to get me a feel for what it was all about, even though it was against Florida’s second string. They told me earlier in the week that they wanted to burn my redshirt, just to get me acclimated and get my feet wet. Even though I didn’t look terrible, I still wasn’t doing things right in terms of progressions. It was tough, especially not playing a ton of high school football, it was a crazy transition for sure.
JC: What’s the most positive takeaway you’ve had from your interactions with the new offensive coaches, specifically Coach Gran and Coach Henshaw?
MS: Just seeing them talk to the players; you can tell they really care about them and respect them. That’s been the most obvious thing to me, because the players are responding to it well. I think the players like the new coaches; you see them laughing and smiling whenever they come around. That’s the type of relationship you want to see and I think the players and coaches are sincere in their respect for one another. It’s encouraging because I see the players really working hard but they’re also having a good time doing it, which is important.
JC: Has there been any interaction with Coach Gran or Coach Henshaw where you’ve maybe given them a little trash talk for the beating the Aztecs laid on Cincinnati last year in the Hawaii Bowl?
MS: No I haven’t said anything; I just met them about a month or so ago and obviously I didn’t even play in that game because of my knee. But San Diego State is a really good football team. I think they’ll be a top 25 team this season. We were really good last year and one of my buddies showed me a website that had San Diego State ranked as the preseason third best defense in the country. Alabama was first, Michigan second, and San Diego State third, so they’re the real deal.
JC: Can you share any words of wisdom that you’ve passed along to Drew, if any?
MS: I haven’t been that vocal with him at this point. I’ll drop little pointers to him and things like that but mainly it’s just he and I both working on getting better. I’m still a little rusty coming off my knee injury and haven’t been able to do all my drops in a certain way, so I have to do various footwork drills individually. My main focus is on getting healthy and improving my game. If I can help with the younger guys in the process, then I’m all for it.
JC: Okay then generally speaking, what would your advice be to a young quarterback coming into a starting spot in the SEC? How would you tell someone to handle it?
MS: It wouldn’t be anything different than what you would think. I’d say to relax, focus on yourself and your game because that’s the only thing you can ultimately control. Don’t listen to the doubters or the haters, don’t get too engulfed with social media. You know what you’re doing right and you know what you need to work on, so own it and be a leader. You have to be vocal and be assertive. You can’t be everybody’s best friend all the time, and on the field, you have to let them know that you’re the commander of the offense.
And that was something that I had to learn, especially in my earlier days when I had juniors and seniors on the field that had been there before. Looking back, I could have been more demonstrative and more assertive. They will still be your friends off the field, but when it comes time to go, you gotta take control. At the same time, you can’t be too tight. Just relax, play loose, and have fun. It’s definitely a challenge but I think Drew will handle it well.
JC: Besides injuries, what was the biggest challenge for you personally as a quarterback at Kentucky?
MS: Well obviously you hit the nail on the head with the injuries, that was the biggest thing. Other than that, I think just learning how to close out a game. There were a few games where you knew it just wasn’t going to happen that day, but it’s the ones where you were so close you could taste it, that stick out the most. And it’s not on one player or one coach, it’s a team effort and a team mentality that takes time to develop. By the end of my college career, I felt like we figured that out at San Diego State. Hopefully this Kentucky team will find that within themselves and develop that attitude this season.