LEXINGTON — Going into the Kentucky game last year, Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater had never had his chance to shine playing behind Will Stein.¿However, Stein was hurt early in the game, Bridgewater led Louisville to an upset win and now he enters his sophomore season as a highly-touted quarterback nationally.
Kentucky sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith gets his chance to show he’s ready to be a prime-time player also Sunday when the Wildcats open the season at Louisville. He played in eight games last year, throwing for 819 yards and set a freshman passing record in a win over Mississippi, starting in place of an injured Morgan Newton.
“He's been really efficient in how consistent he is, throwing strikes, which is putting the ball at eye level for receivers. I like the way he operates,” said Kentucky coach Joker Phillips. “Again, he's not going to be a guy that is going to beat you with his legs, we all know that. But he's a guy that can beat you with his arm, he can beat you with his mind. He can see a blitz, change the protection to pick up the blitz, then hurt you with it.
“When we don't have enough protectors, he also understands our sight adjustments and gets the ball to our receivers quickly, and a lot of those guys make plays. You'll see a more confident player. Last year as a true freshman everything was new to him. Especially seeing our defense, there's nothing he hasn't seen. There's nothing that can confuse him that he hasn't seen. You'll see a more confident, more relaxed Max Smith.”
Smith was 51 of 101 passing for 595 yards and four touchdowns in the three games he started in 2011 after Newton was injured. He beat out Newton in preseason camp to retain the No. 1 job.
“I am ready for it. I¿have been waiting for this for a long time. I¿am just ready to play. That’s about it,” Smith said about Sunday’s game. “It is the first time I¿have started the season and first time playing Louisville. We all know it is a rival, but you have to win every game. We have to come out and beat Kent State and then Western and then Florida. We have to try and win every game. That’s tough to do, but we want to give it our best shot.”
He knows Louisville coach Charlie Strong, a former Florida defensive coordinator, will likely have his defense blitz often, especially after the Cardinals had so much success pressuring UK¿last season.
“You just have to trust your training. Trust what coach (Randy) Sanders is telling me and everything that I¿have learned every day. Things that the scout team has showed us that we think they will do, but they disguise things well and I¿know they will again Sunday. We just have to be ready to react to what I¿see and hopefully I¿make the right reactions,” Smith said.
“I think my knowledge of everything is better than a year ago. I understand things better and I¿feel more accurate. I am just more confident about myself knowing I¿had all these reps with the ones in the spring and fall. My accuracy is better. My understanding of everything is better. Much better with my protection stuff. I thought I was ready last year, but when you get under fire it is completely different and not like practice at all.”
Phillips hopes going against Rick Minter’s creative defensive looks in practice daily will help Smith against Louisville.
“What will help Max is what he has seen in practice. Rick is cut from the same cloth (as Strong). He likes to bring pressure from all different angles, all different directions, all different down¿and¿distance, similar to what we'll see on Sunday,” Phillips said.
The UK¿coach said the key is avoiding losses that put UK¿in difficult third down situations.
“What we have to do is continue to get the ball back to the line of scrimmage. I'd rather play on second¿and¿10 than I would second¿and¿15 any day. I just think it's really hard to start making calls,” Phillips said. “You get third¿and¿long, you get all those exotic blitzes that everybody's running, including us, that are hard to manage.
“They're really hard to manage, especially with the personnel people are putting in the game. A lot faster personnel in the game on third¿and¿longs. It becomes hard to protect it. It becomes really hard to manage it.”
Smith says he’s ready for what the Cards will bring and won’t be overly nervous.
“I feel like I¿am where I¿need to be and ready for Sunday,” the sophomore quarterback said. “Usually the nerves go away after the first play, first pass. As soon as the ball is snapped, I’ll be fine.”