A risk is involved with every personnel change, but with Kentucky there is an added concern to Kentucky’s quarterback switch.
Can Maxwell Smith stay healthy?
The California sophomore replaces Jalen Whitlow as the starter when UK plays its home opener Saturday against Miami (Ohio). As he showed in the fourth quarter of last Saturday’s loss to Western Kentucky, Smith is the more accurate passer of the two, and that is a valued asset in Neal Brown’s Air Raid offense.
Yet Smith has displayed an unfortunate health history, starting in 2010, when the true freshman — Smith arrived on campus as a grayshirt in time for 2011 bowl preparations — impressed as a fill-in for starter Morgan Newton. Alas, Smith’s season was cut short when he injured his shoulder at Georgia and (famously) along with Newton missed the historic season-finale win over Tennessee that year, the one accomplished with wide receiver Matt Roark playing quarterback.
Smith bested Newton for the starting spot in the 2012 fall camp. Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders devised a short-passing scheme to capitalize on the starter’s accuracy and quick delivery. Smith started strong until the third game, when he again injured his shoulder, this time against Western Kentucky. The injury did not improve, causing a last-minute coaches’ decision to sit Smith at Florida, a 38-0 UK loss.
He did start the next week against South Carolina, for one pass attempt. Hit on the throw, Smith suffered torn ankle ligaments that required surgery. His season ended with 975 yards passing on 103 completions in 150 attempts. Smith threw for eight touchdowns with four interceptions, all against Western.
Smith did participate in spring practice, but on August’s Media Day, he admitted that he considered off-season shoulder surgery. UK doctors researched the surgery that St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford underwent at Oklahoma. Ultimately, Smith opted for rest and shoulder-strengthening exercises. He admitted he was advised to avoid falling on his shoulder, if possible.
“Absolutely, we worry about the injury,” UK head coach Mark Stoops said early in fall camp about Smith’s condition.
Saturday, Smith entered in the fourth quarter with UK trailing Western 35-17 and completed eight of 13 passes for 125 yards, including a 34-yard touchdown to Demarco Robinson. Such production, plus the leadership Smith showed on the sideline while Whitlow was on the field, caused Stoops and Brown to engineer a switch for this Saturday.
Now, can Smith stay healthy?