As a freshman last season, Kentucky quarterback Maxwell Smith had his share of struggles.
Against South Carolina on Oct. 8, he threw two interceptions on three attempts en route to a -133.3 rating in a 54-3 defeat.
However, when given more of an opportunity later in the season, he bounced back well. He threw for a pair of touchdowns in a win against Ole Miss and battled before succumbing to Georgia in his final appearance of the season.
Through three games this season, albeit none against conference foes, Smith has gotten off to a fast start.
He leads the conference in completions (102), attempts (149) and yard (966) and is tied with three others for the most touchdowns (8).
His resiliency last season and impressive beginning to this season has Kentucky believing it has found the answer at the quarterback position.
Andre Woodson, the program leader in single-season and career touchdowns, has given strong praise to the sophomore quarterback.
“I truly believe that Max is going to break a lot of records,” Woodson told multiple Kentucky media outlets earlier this month.
Woodson is a graduate assistant with the program and therefore gets to see the development of Smith on a daily basis.
“I think he’ll probably be one of the best quarterbacks to ever come through this university,” he added. “I’m not just saying that to say that.”
Despite the 25-year winning streak Florida has against Kentucky, the players are not taking this particular game lightly.
“We’ve got too much at stake for the amount of work we’ve put in this season,” Jon Halapio said.
The Gators have a recent history of taking teams lightly and not performing well.
Having lost five of six games last season, the Gators faced Furman on Nov. 19 prior to Florida State.
After sleepwalking through the first quarter and finding itself down 22-7, the team kicked it into gear, eventually winning handily.
Still, the scary start left a bad taste in the team’s mouth. One it does not want this week before going into a bye week and preparing for a matchup with LSU.
“Any team can be beaten at any time,” Halapio said.
If Kentucky is going to hold tough against Florida, it will do so through its passing game.
Jonathan George leads the team in rushing attempts with 19, an average of slightly more than six per game.
There is no question; the Kentucky offense is built around Smith’s arm.
For the second week in a row, the onus will be on the Florida secondary to play well and make plays. Last week against Tyler Bray and Tennessee, the defense was able to force two turnovers.
Saturday, it wants more.
“For us to only get two, we’re really trying to get three or more a game,” defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “So we just missed that goal for us.”
Despite coming up short of the three-turnover goal, Quinn said he was pleased with his defense’s performance against Tennessee. The biggest improvement he was looking for prior to facing Kentucky was the communication of the unit.
In the second quarter last week, Tennessee had the ball on the Florida six-yard line.
With the score tied at seven, Bray was able to give his team the lead, finding Mychal Rivera behind the outstretched hands of Florida defensive back Jaylen Watkins.
The missed assignment on Rivera is a product of miscommunication, Quinn said, something the team must tighten up.
“We had a communication error for us in terms of eye control and how we played it,” he said.
In terms of points of emphasis, “Communication is certainly going to be one that we’re going to keep harping on,” Quinn said.
A key to better communication is getting the plays in more quickly, Louchiez Purifoy said.
When playing man-to-man defense, he said the secondary tends to “lock on” to each individual’s assignment rather than communicating as a whole.
By getting the play in more quickly, the defense would be better able to read the offensive formation, communicate assignments and be prepared prior to the snap of the ball.
Purifoy said he could not point to a particular instance where miscommunication cost the secondary, but knew it had happened and would again if it wasn’t worked out.
With Smith quarterbacking Kentucky, the Florida secondary will need to put those adjustments into action early and often.
Smith has attempted at least 39 passes in each game this season, including a season-high 60 attempts last week in a loss to Western Kentucky.
Knowing Kentucky will look to play spoiler, the Florida defense is focused and ready for whatever is thrown at it.
“The scary thing about this team is they have nothing to lose,” Omar Hunter said. “They’re going to do whatever it takes to get a win.”