Newton prepares for full season as quarterback


UK quarterback Morgan Newton makes a touchdown in the second quarter of the game against Mississippi State at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2009. Photo by Adam Wolffbrandt

The last time Cats fans saw former quarterback Mike Hartline under center, he was in the midst of a senior season in which he would lead UK’s pass attack to second in the SEC statistically.

The last time Cats fans saw Morgan Newton under center, he was replacing a suspended Hartline in the BBVA Compass Bowl and was being pounded by a mediocre Pittsburgh Panthers team that managed just an 8-5 record in a weak Big East Conference in 2010.

More than eight months have passed since that game, and with Hartline graduated and gone for good, the job is now Newton’s to lose. With a sour taste already in the mouths of Cats fans, Newton will have to have a successful 2011 season as commander of UK’s offense, and he has worked tirelessly in the offseason to meet the expectations of his teammates, coaches and fans.

Luckily for Newton, he has not had to go it alone. Phillips is a former wide receiver who acted as UK’s offensive coordinator for seven years from 2003-2009 before becoming head coach.

Current offensive coordinator Randy Sanders has been coaching quarterbacks and receivers since 1989, and in the 22 years that comprise his coaching career, Sanders was an offensive coach on 21 bowl bound teams.

Wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator Tee Martin, a former University of Tennessee quarterback, brings his collegiate and professional experience at the position to Lexington for Newton and the other quarterbacks on the Cats’ roster to absorb.

With good coaching and even better work ethic, Newton has his teammates and coaches feeling confident that he is the man to lead UK’s offense.

“I think he’s come light-years from where he was last year,” Martin said. “He’s done a great job of just listening, taking coaching, understanding what he needs to do better, understanding what he needs to do to become a great SEC quarterback.”

“I think he feels comfortable with his role and we feel comfortable with him behind us,” center Matt Smith said. “He’s definitely fit the role and I think he’s definitely coming on as a leader and able to run the offense.”

Behind Newton at quarterback sit three guys with zero combined pass attempts at the collegiate level. The primary backup, grayshirt freshman Maxwell Smith of Granada Hills, Ca., first enrolled in classes at UK last January, but coaches are confident that the young quarterback can develop quickly to provide depth at the position.

“No, we don’t have a backup quarterback that has any snaps, so we’ve got to start getting one ready,” Phillips said. “We’ve learned a little bit of a lesson from a few years ago with Morgan, we had to put Morgan out there as a true freshman. But we had a backup that had played a few snaps.”

“I would hate, four, five games, he’s thrown in there with his first snaps having no experience. We have to find an opportunity to get him some snaps.”

Also at quarterback on UK’s roster are Bookie Cobbins, an athletic dual-threat throwing the ball or tucking it away to run, and Ryan Phillippi, a third-generation UK football player who first enrolled in classes in 2008 but has never dressed for a game in his career as a Cat.

With an obvious lack of depth at the position, the pressure is on Newton to succeed as the starter, and on the coaches to prepare Newton and develop his backups, especially Smith, for the long term.

“I’ve picked up a good deal just looking at (Newton) and his footwork, he’s got some pretty quick feet,” Smith said. “I’m working on a quick drop back. But me and him get along real well, he helps me out and I help him out.”

“Last year I was able to make some plays a little bit in the bowl game,” Newton said, “but this year, being able to consistently come in and hopefully make plays, is exciting.”