University of Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown isn't sure who the Wildcats' starting quarterback will be next season, but he seems pretty certain that the position will be upgraded from last year.

Brown and head coach Mark Stoops said Wednesday after the Cats' third spring practice and first in full pads that they haven't begun whittling down the competition among juniors Jalen Whitlow and Max Smith, sophomore Patrick Towles, redshirt freshman Reese Phillips and true freshman Drew Barker. But they believe the offseason work of the returning players and the natural talent of the newcomer have made the quality of the candidates higher than in 2013.

"We've looked as good (at quarterback) in the (first) three days than we did at any point last year," Brown said. "We're better. I don't think we've arrived, but we're definitely better."

So far Whitlow, Towles, Barker and Phillips are getting an equal number of repetitions with the first-string offense while Smith sits out spring drills recovering from shoulder surgery. Brown said the primary goal for every returning offensive player is to improve his fundamentals, and the quarterbacks have succeeded in that regard.

"We're all miles ahead," Towles said.

Barker, a four-star, All-America recruit, is trying to get acclimated to UK's system after graduating from Conner High School in December and beginning college early. He is trying to accomplish the tall task of becoming a true freshman starting quarterback in the Southeastern Conference. As a sign of just how young he is, Barker went home to attend his senior prom after practice Saturday.

"I'm glad I made the decision (to enroll early), because if I didn't and came in only two months before camp, I would be so far behind," he said. "I feel like I'm right in the mix of things. (The other quarterbacks) have already had the offense, some of them for two years. I'm just learning everything day by day. … Everybody likes each other. It's just a good, friendly competition, and they're quick to help me."

The Cats are clearly proud of having Barker around. A video of his news conference announcing his commitment to UK — and the staff's jubilant reaction to it — gets played on a loop on a TV near the entrance to the Nutter Training Center.

Brown said having Barker and Phillips in the fold and taking first-team repetitions has "added a little bit of juice" to practice.

"It's everything that I expected it to be, really," Barker said. "I have played in the All-American games and stuff like that, so I kind of already had a sense of what the speed would be like. I don't feel like the speed has been that hard for me. Just learning the plays and everything has been the biggest thing."

As for the returning players, Whitlow, Towles and Phillips are trying to show Stoops and Brown the strides they've made in the offseason. The dual-threat Whitlow started eight games in 2013 and played in all 12. He completed 61.6 percent of his throws but had only one game with more than 200 passing yards.

Stoops said Whitlow has been more accurate and has a better command of the offense this spring.

"I feel way better," Whitlow said. "I spent the (season-ending Tennessee game) until now just focusing, getting myself better."

When Towles signed in 2012 as Kentucky's Mr. Football and a four-star recruit from Highlands High, fans hoped he could be the Cats' QB hero for years to come. He played in five games as a true freshman, but flawed mechanics led to him falling behind Whitlow and Smith last season and taking a redshirt.

Towles' confidence never wavered, and he never considered transferring when he wasn't named the 2013 starter.

"I'm Kentucky, and I'm going to be here for the long haul," he said. "I don't plan on going anywhere. When you get frustrated, you tend to get your guard down and you want to think of other options. But I recognized what I was doing wrong and feel like I fixed everything. … Nothing is really holding me back anymore."