Sophomore Maxwell Smith is day-to-day with an injured shoulder, which could result in freshman Jalen Whitlow starting if Smith hasn’t healed. Wildcats coach Joker Phillips raised the possibility on Monday, adding that Whitlow has been groomed for the No. 2 job since the season began.
“I don’t know at this point. It would probably be Jalen,” he said when asked who might start. “I don’t know exactly if we’d go with Morgan (Newton) or Jalen, but Jalen would probably deserve (to start) based on the way we performed on Saturday.
“We’ve got to go through this week and see how everything works out.”
Both struggled against No. 11 Florida, though Newton’s ineffective play probably accelerated Whitlow’s ascent. Forced to start when Smith was scratched at the last minute, Newton, a senior backup, was 7 of 21 for 48 yards with three interceptions, one of which was returned 26 yards for a touchdown.
Whitlow was just as bad after replacing Newton in the fourth quarter, completing 1 of 6 for 12 yards as Kentucky (1-3) lost for the 26th consecutive time to Florida.
Whoever starts will be a falloff from Smith, who has completed 102 of 149 passes for 986 yards and eight touchdowns. But in choosing Whitlow, Phillips said he’s at least following a plan.
“We’ve been prepping (Whitlow) to be our No. 2 since the Louisville game,” Phillips said. “We worked Morgan (Newton) to be the No. 2 going up to the Louisville game, but after that we started prepping Jalen.
“(Then) Max went down, and we just felt like (Whitlow) wasn’t quite ready to go in that type of environment. We wanted to start Morgan, and we did. It didn’t work out, but we still felt like it was the right decision.”
Smith didn’t play after trainers determined that he risked further injury to the shoulder with another hit. The weekend off helped the injury – a sprained right acromioclavicular joint – feel better Sunday, Phillips said.
Smith will resume throwing on Wednesday and Thursday and an evaluation will be made on his availability for South Carolina, which features one of the nation’s best defenses and two of its best pass rushers.
The Gamecocks’ defense ranks fifth in scoring (9.75 points), seventh in sacks (3.75), eighth in rushing (67.0 yards) and 19th overall (300.25 yards).
Ends Jadeveon Clowney (4.5 sacks) and Chaz Sutton (3.0) lead a defense where eight players have sacks. Senior linebacker Shaq Wilson has 25 tackles and two interceptions, both team highs.
That puts a premium on pass protection, which has been one of Kentucky’s few bright spots. The Wildcats have allowed just four sacks, and none against Florida.
Not everything went well, as the quarterbacks’ problems demonstrated.
“As a whole offense, we started off drives great and just kind of withered,” senior center Matt Smith said. “It wasn’t all on Morgan. As an offensive line we were getting pushed back in his face a little bit, to where he was having to make some throws that he wasn’t able to step into. He was throwing off his tippy-toes trying to get the ball over our heads.”
Smith said the last-minute switch to Newton and then Whitlow wasn’t a factor because the linemen recognize their cadence and checks. If anything, they should have been more physical against Florida.
“Although we didn’t give up sacks and that makes us look like heroes out there, we weren’t,” he added. “We were getting pressure and (Newton) got hit a couple times, things that shouldn’t have been happening. We just got to go back and start from ground zero and start getting ready to play again this week.”
Phillips said he will give both practice reps with the first team but can’t give either one all of the snaps. Smith can hand off and make passing-game checks but can’t throw, the coach noted.
While the choice won’t be known until later this week, the offensive line’s mission remains keeping them upright so they can make the reads and throws -- and the Wildcats won’t have to use more options.
“No matter who it is, we’ve got to protect that person,” sophomore left tackle Darrian Miller said.