LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Jalen Whitlow, Maxwell Smith and Patrick Towles will have equal opportunities to prove they're capable of being Kentucky's starting quarterback.
Wildcats coaches wouldn't complain if one from this trio quickly tilts the scales in their favor.
Uppermost in new coach Mark Stoops' varied agenda to rebuild the program is finding someone to execute offensive coordinator Neal Brown's pass-oriented "Air Raid" scheme. The coaches haven't ruled out using multiple signal-callers as an alternative but would prefer playing one.
All three sophomores boast certain skills and game experience that figures to make competition interesting as practice opened Monday afternoon. The hope is that one stands out soon if the Wildcats hope to establish any continuity.
"I think anybody would like to have one guy," Stoops said, "but you have to make the right choice and if it takes game reps, then that's what we're going to do."
All of the quarterback candidates want to make sure the competition doesn't extend into the Aug. 31 opener against Western Kentucky in Nashville. They've each spent the summer working on fundamentals along with becoming more familiar with the up-tempo system that helped make Texas Tech into a top-10 passing team the past three years under Brown, who learned the Air Raid philosophy from former Wildcats coach Hal Mumme.
"When I found out coach Brown was coming, I immediately got online and looked up his past quarterbacks' statistics, everything," said Whitlow, who started Kentucky's final seven games last season.
"It's the same offense I've run since ninth grade. I had to get familiar with the offense, but my game wouldn't change. Mainly, I've had to work on my footwork and delivering the pass with more zip by getting my body toward the target."
Whitlow might be the early favorite after completing 17 of 28 passes for 193 yards and two touchdowns in the Blue/White spring game. In listing each candidate's strengths on Monday, Brown noted Whitlow's playmaking ability, athleticism and composure, the last asset gained through adversity after being thrust into duty following Smith's season-ending ankle injury.
"Even though the end results didn't show it, he got better as it went on last year," said Brown, alluding to Whitlow's 1-6 record as a starter.
Smith is the most experienced of the group, playing eight games with three starts in 2011 and starting four last season before the injury. He's very familiar with spread-type offenses and showed promise last fall by completing nearly 69% of his throws for 975 yards and eight touchdowns.
Staying healthy remains the biggest question about the 6-foot-4, 218-pound Smith. A shoulder injury sidelined him against Florida last year before he returned the next week against South Carolina and was knocked out for the year with the injury.
Fully recovered now, Smith aims to stay that way.
"I'm stronger than I've ever been, really," said Smith, who's also working on pointing his feet toward the receiver. "I love the training, from the sled poles to the medicine-ball throws to the 30-minute warm-up we have every morning. Everything's different."
In Towles, Brown sees a player with a strong arm and more mobility than he's given credit for. That could be due to Towles' focus on footwork and reads in hopes of extending plays.
Brown also had praise for 6-2, 219-pound freshman Reese Phillips, a fourth candidate who enrolled early in January. However, it's clear who the main choices are, and the coach will be watching each to see who moves the needle most in the process.
Failing that, Brown is open to rotating QBs. He noted South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier's success with multiple choices and said there are times when success is possible by committee.
Kentucky's objective is choosing one to lead it, and Brown promises to be fair and diligent in deciding without allowing it to become a controversy.
"I don't think any of those guys are jealous by nature," Brown said. "I think they are really good, solid human beings.
"This is going to be about we, not about me. This is how the reps are going to be distributed and everybody is going to get an opportunity to prove themselves. The most productive guy will win."