Kentucky’s football players report Thursday for the start of preseason practice and Mike Hartline, the returning No. 1 quarterback, figures to get less attention the next few days than highly-touted freshman quarterbacks Ryan Mossakowski and Morgan Newton. P>
Why? How can that be?
Simple. Hartline was viewed more as a manager of UK’s inconsistent offense last year than as a playmaker. He even lost his starting job to then freshman Randall Cobb before redeeming himself by leading the Cats to victory in the Liberty Bowl.
Yet the talk for months has been about the athletic Newton — and he is — or the rocket Mossakowski has for an arm — and he does if he’s fully recovered from shoulder surgery.
But offensive tackle Zipp Duncan, one of the players who will be protecting the UK quarterback, certainly sounds like a Hartline backer.
“Mike has been great all summer. He set up the 7-on-7 workouts. He’s been a vocal leader and pushed guys to get through the workouts. He’s grown immensely as a leader,” said Duncan.
So are the freshmen good enough to challenge Hartline, or even win the job?
“It is hard. They can throw the ball well, but they still have to try to learn the offense in three weeks of practice and then play people like Auburn and South Carolina on the road,” Duncan said. “That’s tough to do. They are athletic guys. They are both really talented. They are working hard to pick up everything. I can’t speculate, but know no job is safe going into the season. Still, it’s hard to come in and play quarterback.”
Hard, yes. Impossible, no.
After all, Cobb did it last year even if coach Rich Brooks jokes that he did it more with great instincts than he did with great quarterbacking fundamentals.
Still, Brooks has done all he can to downplay the expectations for Newton and Mossakowski as the team’s saviors while continually expressing confidence in Hartline’s ability. Brooks even recently noted he’s had more true freshmen start in the offensive line than at quarterback in his career.
“There have not been a lot of true freshmen come in (and start) at any position even when we were not very good. It’s just hard for a true freshman to bust onto the starting scene,” the Kentucky coach said. “There has been a guy here and a guy there do it, and others who have played quite a bit.
“But to have expectations that a quarterback can come into this league and learn all the things he has to learn to be successful at the position, and that’s notwithstanding whether he can throw the ball, has the arm strength, has his timing down, has the decision-making down. If he can’t do some of those things, it doesn’t matter.
“But when you add all the mental stuff a quarterback has to learn, I do not think it is realistic that one of our freshmen will come in and automatically be the savior of our season.”
Brooks does acknowledge that Hartline was better at avoiding negative plays last year than he was at making positive plays.
“I think we were fourth in the nation in sacks allowed. That isn't all because our offensive line just kicked the heck out of every defense we played; it was because Mark Hartline, when he realized, rather than taking a negative sack, he would throw the ball away, or scramble and run for some positive yards,” Brooks said.
However, Brooks also correctly points out that Hartline figures to have a better supporting cast. Last year’s offensive line was not quite as good as projected. Last year’s tight ends didn’t make anyone forget Jacob Tamme — or make any consistent big plays. Last year’s receivers — other than Cobb when he played there and Dicky Lyons before he was hurt — didn’t match the level of other SEC players.
The running game was non-existent way too often because teams stacked the line of scrimmage with defenders because there was no fear of getting beat deep by UK’s receivers.
“Hartline will have more experience surrounding him. We played five freshmen receivers last year,” Brooks said. “The experience around him will be greater, his understanding of the offense will be greater, and his accuracy, I think, will improve along with that experience.”
If he does, Kentucky is bowl-bound again. Write that down.
If he doesn’t, the Cats at least have options with the versatile Cobb available to take snaps. Even if Hartline is playing well, Cobb will play some quarterback to create problems for defenses. Then there is the hope that either Newton or Mossakowski will be able to help — and win games — if necessary.
“The future at quarterback looks very bright for Kentucky,” Brooks said.
Especially if Hartline can live up to the preseason confidence his coach has in him.