LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Schools in the SEC have been known to spend millions of dollars during the recruiting process.
If a kid can play, schools are going to find him.
Kentucky quarterback Maxwell Smith was the exception. He recruited Kentucky.
Now a sophomore, Smith heads into the 2012 season as the guy to beat at the quarterback position for Kentucky. Coach Joker Phillips said coming out of the spring that Smith would be the Wildcats’ starter if the season started today.
Not bad for somebody who didn’t have a single offer from an FBS school when his senior season of high school ended. For that matter, national signing day came and went that February, and Smith still didn’t have an offer from an FBS school.
A Granada Hills, Calif., product, Smith had Sacramento State as a possibility and was also thinking hard about going to junior college.
“I found Kentucky. They didn’t find me,” Smith now jokes.
What happened is that Smith didn’t play his junior season of high school. He had some minor injuries and was playing at a high school, Bishop Alemany in Mission Hills, Calif., that ran the ball most of the time.
So Smith transferred prior to his senior season to Birmingham High School in Van Nuys, Calif., and put up big numbers.
The only problem was that schools were just starting to hear about him and thought he was a junior.
“Stanford and UCLA were asking for my film, but they thought I was a junior,” Smith explained. “I was way under the radar.”
Determined to play big-time college football, Smith started sending out tape from his senior season. He picked out several SEC schools with offenses that he felt like fit his game. Kentucky was on that list.
Offensive line coach Mike Summers was the coach Smith made contact with, and the Wildcats immediately liked what they saw. They offered Smith a scholarship, but like everybody else, thought he was a junior.
Smith wound up coming on a visit to Kentucky two springs ago. He still didn’t have a firm offer at that point. The Wildcats were full and didn’t have any scholarships available, so they offered him a chance to grayshirt, which meant delaying enrollment until that January.
Smith accepted, and even though there was very little fanfare surrounding his signing, he had exactly what he wanted -- a chance to compete at the highest level in college football.
“I just went back to California and worked,” Smith said. “I didn’t have a playbook or anything. I didn’t even know any of the Kentucky players. I just knew I had to work as hard as I could to be ready.”
Smith didn’t have to wait long to get his first taste of the SEC. He played in eight games last season as a true freshman and made his first start against Ole Miss in Game 9.
Kentucky trailed in the fourth quarter of that game, but Smith brought the Wildcats back with a pair of touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, and they won 30-13. Smith finished 19-of-36 for 283 yards. His 38-yard touchdown pass to La’Rod King was a beauty, and most importantly, he didn’t throw any interceptions.
“The thing you like about Maxwell is his toughness and the way the guys respond to him,” Phillips said. “That’s something your quarterback’s got to have, and Maxwell never flinched last year.”
The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Smith started the rest of the way until a sprained throwing shoulder kept him out of the finale against Tennessee.
While not pleased with the two interceptions he threw in the spring game, Smith said there’s no question that his teammates look at him in a different light than they did this time a year ago.
“They know me now and know what I can do,” Smith said. “Nobody really knew anything about me last year. But when I went into that Mississippi State game and played well, and then we came back and won against Ole Miss, you could sort of see everybody then saying, ‘OK, maybe Maxwell can do this.’
“I’ve tried to feed off that. I feel like I have real good camaraderie with my teammates, both on and off the field. I think they trust me now to make good throws and get it right out there.”
Still, Smith isn’t taking anything for granted. A Freshman All-SEC selection a year ago, he knows senior Morgan Newton isn’t going to just lie down when he returns to the practice field this fall. Newton missed the spring after having shoulder surgery.
“With Morgan coming back healthy, you’ve got to win it all over again,” Smith said. “You’re never safe. It’s a business. It really is, just like the NFL. You have to be ready for anything.”
Until somebody tells Smith differently, though, he views it as his job to lose.
“That’s how I’ve got to look at it,” he said. “If I’m performing and doing things well in practice, and they feel like I can help this team win, then it’s my team.”