LEXINGTON (AP) — Kentucky linebacker Avery Williamson had butterflies. So did quarterback Jalen Whitlow and cornerback Cody Quinn. When they took the field for the Wildcats’ spring football game Saturday, they said it felt like fall.
It looked like it, too.
A record crowd of 50,831 attended the Blue-White Scrimmage, which the Blue team won 24-23. The previous record for attendance at a Kentucky spring football game was 20,325 in 1987. Last season, the school announced an attendance of 4,500.
“I was amazed,” new coach Mark Stoops said. “You heard these numbers for the past few couple weeks, and you know, you never know who is going to show up. It was overwhelming. It was fantastic.”
Throughout spring practice, Stoops and his staff have offered little insight into the team’s three-man quarterback battle. Both Whitlow and Maxwell Smith started at times last year, and redshirt freshman Patrick Towles has also been in the competition.
The three quarterbacks rotated snaps evenly, in alphabetical order, to prevent the sense that one or another was pulling away. When the game started Saturday, all three quarterbacks came out lined up as receivers, and the first play was a direct snap to running back Raymond Sanders.
“You all can’t say who started the game,” offensive coordinator Neal Brown said.
Once the Wildcats’ offense settled in to its offensive schemes, Whitlow was the most productive. The dual-threat quarterback was 17-of-28 for 193 yards and two touchdowns. He also finished with 49 rushing yards on seven attempts, including a run of 22 yards. Smith finished with 108 yards and a touchdown, and Towles had 65 yards and a score.
Stoops said Whitlow has an inherent advantage, if only a slight one, in the race because he’s the only of the three candidates that has adds a running game to the fold. He was sharp on the ground, using both speed and sharp cuts to make defenders miss in the backfield to either buy time to pass or tuck the ball and run.
Whitlow admitted he’s grown a lot since being thrown into the fire to start the Wildcats’ final seven games last season as a true freshman.
“If you have confidence, you make plays,” he said. “You have to carry with confidence. Players carry themselves with confidence. You will never see Peyton Manning carrying himself like a regular Joe.”
Brown said Whitlow’s presence as a runner is a plus but won’t single-handedly make any decisions. Part of what’s ignited the Wildcats’ fan base to record levels this time of year has been the team’s offensive identity: a spread offense centered on passing.
It calls back to the “Air Raid” offense under Hal Mumme in the ’90s, when Tim Couch played for Kentucky and air raid sirens signaled each Kentucky score. Brown caught Couch’s pass as a receiver for the Wildcats, and that identity is back. So are the sirens.
One part of the Air Raid offense is getting several receivers involved. Sixteen players caught passes Saturday, all the way from starting wide out Demarco Robinson (six catches for 93 yards and a touchdown) down to freshman walk-on tight end John Ballis (one reception for 26 yards).
After the game, the players recognized the scrimmage was just that: one scrimmage, one of several the Wildcats had throughout spring practice. What took many of them aback was the fan support.
“I had butterflies today knowing there was going to be this many people here for the spring game,” Whitlow said. “That’s big. That’s big to the University of Kentucky. That’s big to the state of Kentucky.
“Fifty-one thousand people? Come on. That’s a lot of people for basically a practice game. That’s big,” he said.