LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Knowing the challenge he faces in leading Kentucky back to respectability, Maxwell Smith wouldn't dare show swagger despite winning the quarterback's job.
Rather, the confidence he's displaying suggests a comfort zone with the Wildcats' multiple offensive system, an important step toward that goal.
Starting three games late last season helped the then-freshman, who followed up with a strong spring and training camp to earn the starting job last week. Since then Smith has been polishing up his game, which will be needed Sunday as Kentucky opens the season at No. 25 Louisville.
Smith's performance is even more important for the Wildcats after a 5-7 season highlighted by weak offense. Kentucky surpassed 200 yards passing just twice in 2011 and averaged just 135.6 yards per game.
Smith was a bright spot, completing 55% of his passes for 819 yards and four touchdowns against four interceptions. Not bad considering he was still learning the playbook.
"I understand things so much better now," the 6-4, 224-pounder said. "I feel more accurate, and I'm more confident in myself. I had all these reps with the (first-stringers) in the spring and the fall and it was really beneficial for me.
"Coach (Randy) Sanders (offensive coordinator) and I have done a lot of one-on-one things and I feel much better than I did last year."
Sanders describes their encounters as personal and challenging in addition to being football-related. Mutual trust has resulted, with the coach more faithful in his quarterback's skills and instincts while the quarterback believes in the decision-making.
Which might explain the gains Smith has made since last fall.
"He's come a million miles," Sanders said. "Now when you call a play, you can look in his eyes and tell (that) he knows it. Where(as) last year, a lot of times he knew it but you could look in his eyes and could see him processing it.
"Once you get to where you don't have to think about at play and just react to what happens, it makes it much easier and he's much closer to that than where he was."
Kentucky nonetheless expects to run the football to ease the burden on Smith, whose main targets are senior receivers La'Rod King, E.J. Fields and Gene McCaskill.
Smith's freshman transition -- similar to Louisville counterpart Teddy Bridgewater, who threw for two touchdowns in last year's Governor's Cup victory in Lexington -- explains why Cardinals coach Charlie Strong is preparing his squad for every Wildcats contingency.
"You've been able to see him play because (of) games he started last year," Strong said Monday. "No matter who their quarterback is, they're going to run their offense and we have to stop the run, whether it's their running back with the ball or their quarterback."
Smith's chances of running seem remote, particularly since he has clearly focused on accuracy. After showing flashes last fall, his consistency in delivering the ball is why coaches and receivers are encouraged.
"He's confident back there, he's relaxed and has taken a leadership role," King said. "As a receiver, you want the quarterback to get everybody the ball and you want him to be diverse and able to scan the whole field. ... He's doing a good job with his reads and stepping up into the position."
Said Smith, "I've put in a lot of work this offseason, throwing a lot of passes. Working on my deep ball, which is what I thought I needed to improve on most."
But for all the Wildcats' hope, 200-yard games might be tough to come by in the Southeastern Conference, the nation's toughest league featuring a glut of standout secondaries.
Kentucky believes the potential to improve is there, feeding off of Smith's obvious confidence that he can get results.
"I have to prove it," he said. "I haven't done anything or proven anything to anyone. That's what I'm here to do, to prove to you that I can play, move the ball down the field and score some touchdowns."