Kentucky's much talked-about four-man quarterback battle officially became a two-man competition on Tuesday when head coach Mark Stoops announced that sophomores Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow would be the main signal callers the Wildcats take into the 2013 season.
"We haven't made a decision on the starter yet," Stoops said following a scrimmage at Commonwealth Stadium. "We have narrowed it to two, and I think both of those guys will play in the first game. I know both of those guys will play in the first game, but I don't know who's going to start yet."
Asked if he had a timetable for naming a starter for the opener on Aug. 31 against Western Kentucky, Stoops added: "Not worried about doing that right now. We'll see how it goes."
The news that Smith and Whitlow have emerged as the top two options did not come as a surprise. Many reports out of UK camp have suggested the edge has gone back and forth between the two since the end of spring practice. Still, the news had to be broken to a third sophomore, Patrick Towles, that he had come up a little short in the competition.
"Patrick was absolutely fantastic through the process," Stoops said. "He fought and he wanted to win the starting job, but he's had a great attitude, and that's what I told him. Patrick has been very good. He's continued to work very hard. He's got as much talent as any quarterback we have on campus. It's just a matter of letting him grow into the situation a little bit, and he's open to the idea, if the opportunity presents itself, to redshirt."
Stoops did not completely close the door on Towles playing at some point this season. As coaches like to say, the backup is only one play away from being the starter, and the No. 3 guy not too far from being forced into action.
Never was that more appropriate than the 2012 season, when the Wildcats saw Smith go down with a serious ankle injury after four games, and went through Morgan Newton, Whitlow and Towles at various times the rest of the season when Newton and Towles got dinged up against the rugged SEC schedule.
And then there's the possibility that neither Smith nor Whitlow are effective in UK's new "Air Raid" offense.
"If we go throughout the year, and neither one of the quarterbacks are getting it done, then we may open it back up," Stoops said. "(Towles) is going to prepare to be the third quarterback with the opportunity to redshirt there."
While it was difficult to break the news to Towles, who came to UK as a four-star prospect last summer out of tradition-rich Highlands High School, Stoops said he was comfortable with the decision. "I know it was easy for me because I was very fair throughout the whole process and gave him every opportunity to win the job."
Kentucky's two main quarterbacks reportedly had a good day on Tuesday during the closed scrimmage at the stadium. The offense got the better of the defense, according to the UK staff.
"Much better day," Stoops said. "The offense executed very well, had great enthusiasm. They executed well, did some really good things. Defensively, wasn't as good of a day. We weren't as good in position, didn't make as good tackles, so overall, not every pleased with the defensive effort, but pleased to see the offense bounce back.
"I was encouraged."
Stoops said the scrimmage would be one of the last opportunities the staff would get to evaluate film prior to putting together a depth chart and starting game preparation for Western Kentucky.
Smith, Quinn Still Ailing:
Defensive end Za'Darius Smith and cornerback Cody Quinn, both expected starters for the Wildcats, missed another practice on Tuesday. Each player is dealing with a nagging ankle injury.
Stoops has previously brushed off questions about their availability for the opening game, but for the first time admitted some concern.
"They did not play today," Stoops said, "And, yes, I am (concerned). They've got some aggravating ankle injuries, and we're trying to get them back on the field."
Asked who would likely step into the defensive end rotation opposite Alvin "Bud" Dupree if Smith cannot play against the Hilltoppers, UK coaches indicated it would likely be sophomore Farrington Huguenin or junior TraVaughn Paschal. Junior Alvin Davis, redshirt freshman Langston Newton and freshman Jason Hatcher are other options the Cats could explore.
The Wildcats also held out junior college cornerback Nate Willis, whose practice work has been accelerated after a delay in being cleared to enroll at UK. He was experiencing some soreness in a hamstring, so the staff elected not to push him in the scrimmage.
Ryan Timmons (1) and Ronnie Shields are expected to play key roles in a new-look receiving corps. (FOX Sports Photo by Jeff Drummond.)
The receiver corps were an area of concern coming out of spring football, but the Wildcats appear to have solidified the group nicely through four signees who have impressed and brought up the overall level of play in the group.
"They played much better today (than in previous scrimmages)," Stoops said. "I can't think off the top of my head if they had any drops – maybe a couple here or there – but I don't remember any of the top two groups dropping any balls."
Stoops singled out freshman Ryan Timmons as a player who has a chance to step into the starting lineup for the first game of the season. He has also spoken highly of newcomers Alex Montgomery, Jeff Badet and Javess Blue during fall camp, who have helped the receiver corps build some depth alongside veterans like Demarco Robinson, Daryl Collins, Ronnie Shields and A.J. Legree.
Lewis Joins Team:
Stoops acknowledged that junior college defensive lineman Melvin Lewis has officially joined the team in recent days. He, like Willis, had been awaiting clearance from the NCAA.
"He is here," Stoops said. "He's out there practicing. He looks good. He's obviously out of shape where he hasn't been here all summer, but we're pleased with what we see from him so far. He does have a redshirt year available to him as well, so we'll see how he progresses."
Defensive line is a fairly deep position for UK entering the 2013 season, especially at the interior spots. The 6-foot-4, 290-pound Lewis, a native of Compton, Calif., played last year at Fullerton College, where he had 41 tackles, six tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.