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September 30, 2013

Up next: QB quandary in Kentucky



Kentucky coach Mark Stoops has quickly discovered the SEC is comparable to the NFL in one key way - life on offense is difficult when you struggle at quarterback.

Similar to most major college coaches, Stoops prefers to have a solid No 1 quarterback and a reliable backup. However, through the first four games, neither of two sophomores, Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow, has taken a firm grasp of the position, leaving Stoops with a quandary.

Kentucky (1-3 overall, 0-1 in SEC) is averaging 238.8 passing yards per game, eight best in the SEC, but eliminate the Wildcats' 41-7 victory over hapless Miami of Ohio from the equation and the weekly average dips dramatically to 180.7 yards per game, which would be 12th-best in the conference.

Smith and Whitlow have combined to complete 61.1 percent of their passes (77-of-126), but it has led to few sustained drives. Kentucky is a distant last in the SEC in third-down conversion percentage (23.4 percent) and total first downs (71).

Look up the word "inconsistency" in the dictionary and you might find a picture of Smith and Whitlow there.

"We need to continue to evaluate that (quarterback situation)," Stoops said Monday during his weekly press conference in Lexington, Ky. "We will tailor our offense to whatever we need to do to help us move the ball and win games. We just need the best (quarterback) to come forward and be consistent and give us a chance to win.

"We have two quarterbacks that aren't separating themselves. We wish we were a little more productive and playing better at that position."

The Kentucky offense bottomed out in Saturday night's 24-7 home loss to Florida, mustering just 173 yards in total offense, 125 through the air, and 12 first downs. Converting just 1-of-8 third down opportunities didn't help matters as the Wildcats put together only one drive longer than 45 yards.

"I thought both guys struggled at times on Saturday. That had to do with a great Florida defense and us not executing," Stoop said.

In the last two games, Kentucky has converted 1-of-21 third down chances. It was 0-for-13 in the 27-13 loss to Blue Grass State rival Louisville on Sept. 14 in Lexington.

The Gators dominated time of possession (38:09 to 21:51) as Kentucky snapped the ball just 47 times in the fast-moving game. Running back Raymond Sanders, universally regarded as UK's best ball carrier, gained just 16 yards for the second straight games and will arrive in Columbia with 71 yards in the last three games.

However, the leading rusher in terms of yardage is true freshman Jojo Kemp, who has 186 yards on 21 carries, an average of 8.9 yards per attempt.

"We need to do better and we need to coach better (in the running game)," Stoops said. "And we need to give them the ball a little bit more."

Like many of the young players on Kentucky's two-deep, Kemp will be making his first SEC road trip. Technically, this is the first "road" game of the season for Kentucky since it played three home games after opening the season in Nashville on a neutral field against Western Kentucky.

"Just throw them to the wolves," Stoops laughed. "No, they've been in some games. They have a few plays under their belt. They've fought hard. I've been pleased with the fight in our team. They haven't laid down."

The subpar presentation by the Wildcats offense, particularly the quarterback, left a bewildered Stoops shaking his head in frustration, and possessing more questions than answers.

"We would like to get to one (quarterback), we really would," Stoops said. "We're in a little bit of a quandary right now with what to do. We are going to try to gear it towards one person and give him most of the reps and see what he can do. It has not been clear cut to this point. It would reckless for us to name one guy at this point because nobody has taken the job.

"We're going to evaluate it hard this week and see where it's at. We need one of these guys to take the reins and lea dour team."

Facing a hot-and-cold South Carolina defense, Stoops realizes the Wildcats offense will have its hands full trying to contain defensive Jadeveon Clowney and the rest of the Gamecock defense.

"Jadeveon is arguably one of the best players at any position in the country," Stoop said. "He gets an awfully lot of attention and he deserves it. I don't know if he has the stats from a year ago, but if you don't know where he's at and pay attention to him with doubles (team) and slides and things like at, you can be hurt in a hurry."

Stoops, of course, is the younger brother of Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops, who served as defensive coordinator under Steve Spurrier at Florida in the mid-to-late 1990s until accepting the job in Norman.

"I have a lot of respect for Coach Spurrier," Mark Stoops said. "I've known him and Steve (Spurrier) Jr. for a long time. It will be a real challenge, but we're looking forward to it."

After watching the USC-UCF game film, Stoops expects a few changes in USC's offensive approach from the second half when it pounded away at the Knights' defense behind running back Mike Davis, the SEC's leading rusher at 127.0 yards per game.

"He has great balance and great strength," Stoops said. "Maybe he's not flashy, but he's constantly getting positive yards. This is a typical SEC football team. They're a physical team when they want to be, just like Florida. But they can play finesse too. That's where experience comes in and being good at a lot of things. They have quality depth."

However, presumptive starter Dylan Thompson has a full week to prepare for the Kentucky defense.

"I think they'll change a little," Stoops said. "Connor Shaw had a little more experience. You saw some more of the (shot)gun running game with the quarterback running. I think we will still see that, but I do expect them to be under center a lit bit more and run it.

"In this league, if you can't stop power running teams, you have zero chance to win. At the core, you have to be able to defend some of that stuff. We're not there yet, but we're getting better."

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