LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky's freshmen are experiencing an extended orientation as the Wildcats battle through what has been an injury-plagued season.
Injuries have forced the Wildcats to play 26 so far. Kentucky has played 14 true freshmen, that ranks in the top five nationally.
Three — quarterback Jalen Whitlow, cornerback Cody Quinn and punter Landon Foster — will start Saturday at Arkansas (2-4, 1-2 Southeastern Conference).
While youth partly explains Kentucky's start (1-5, 0-3 SEC), the youngsters are also making significant contributions.
Foster is ninth among SEC punters; Whitlow and fellow freshmen QB Patrick Towles (now injured) led scoring drives last week against No. 19 Mississippi State; Quinn will make his fourth straight start.
The situation has resulted in a quick, but sometimes painful, maturation process.
"You know what? It's a great opportunity for a lot of younger guys and it's kind of an eye-opening experience being thrust into action and having no other choice," said starting left guard Zach West, a redshirt freshman. "It's definitely getting guys to grow up a lot quicker."
Freshmen have seen time on both sides of the ball, though the offense has experienced its share of changes lately. Especially at quarterback, where Whitlow will play his third straight game and make his second consecutive start.
He started the season on third string before becoming the backup with senior Morgan Newton's move to H-back. Sophomore Maxwell Smith's ankle injury two weeks ago changed everything, moving Whitlow into the starter's role last week with a plan of alternating with Towles.
Towles' sprained right ankle sustained before halftime of the 27-14 loss has changed the plan again. The latest depth chart lists Whitlow, Newton and freshman Jeff Witthuhn, a walk-on.
Though Whitlow gives the Wildcats some continuity, he knows only half the playbook and the coaches are hoping he stays healthy to avoid using another alternative.
"I'd much rather not have to deal with it, honestly," offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said Tuesday of all the changes. "It's nice when you have one guy and you can play with him and he gets (repetitions).
"The problem is you're going to make mistakes until you get all the reps. We're still working our way through some of those mistakes."
The defense has gone through its share of growing pains as well. Eight of nine linebackers are either freshman or sophomores, and those classes comprise three-quarters of the secondary.
Saturday's game could see twin safeties Daron and Zack Blaylock join Quinn in the starting lineup, trying to defend against an Arkansas offense averaging 301.3 yards per game passing.
"Why not?," defensive coordinator Rick Minter asked. "We just have to close ranks and march on with those that we have. If we're young, we're young. Everybody was young at one time and stars are born every day."