Hartline has final chance to make QB job his own

Allie Garza//Kentucky Kernel
 Sophomore quarterback Mike Hartline throws a pass while Alabama junior linebacker Eryk Anders goes in for the tackle during the beginning of the third quarter.

Allie Garza//Kentucky Kernel Sophomore quarterback Mike Hartline throws a pass while Alabama junior linebacker Eryk Anders goes in for the tackle during the beginning of the third quarter.

Mike Hartline knows this is his last hurrah.

Hartline knows he has his fair share of critics. He knows the label of opening day starter doesn’t mean anything. He knows UK head coach Joker Phillips has said that “he offers the best chance (to win) at this point in time, but that might not be the case in a couple of weeks.”

Most importantly, Hartline recognizes that by winning the UK quarterback competition, after he bested sophomore Morgan Newton and redshirt freshman Ryan Mossakowski, he has put himself in a position to finally seize the starting job for good after more than two seasons of trying to do so.

“The (quarterback) competition is so great, especially this year, it’s the most I’ve ever been around to keep the job, so to speak, or get it back, however you want to look at it,” said Hartline, who was announced as the starter on Aug. 23, but whose quarterbacking journey started some time ago and has been filled with many ups and downs.

Prior to the 2008 season, Hartline assumed the starter’s role, not necessarily based on merit but because of necessity following the dismissal of Andre Woodson’s former backup, Curtis Pulley, who was at one time actually ahead of Woodson on the depth chart.

Since that time, Hartline has posted an 8-6 record as starter and thrown for 2,468 yards, 15 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. He has shouldered much of the blame for the offense’s inability to replicate the offensive prowess of the Woodson-led teams in 2006 and 2007.

UK offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders said people tend to sometimes overemphasize statistics and that “changing quarterbacks is not always the answer to solving problems.”

Yet the Cats’ quarterback carousel has been filled with changes involving Hartline.

Hartline started the first eight games in 2008 before being replaced at quarterback by then-freshman Randall Cobb during a 63-5 drubbing at the hands of Florida.

Cobb got the nod as starter for the remaining four regular season games in the 2008 season, before missing the Liberty Bowl because of a knee injury. Had it not been for Cobb’s injury, Hartline presumably wouldn’t have started that bowl game, in which he went 19-0f-31 for 204 yards in a redeeming performance.

Hartline then resumed his starting duties for the 2009 campaign. Cobb was transitioning to wide receiver, so Hartline’s competition only included two highly-touted freshmen, Newton and Mossakowski. Hartline’s experience pushed him to the forefront once more.

However, it was Hartline who sustained a knee injury in the fifth game last year against South Carolina, when he was arguably playing his best football to date.

Little-used veteran Will Fidler came in relief for the rest of the game, but Newton eventually leapfrogged him on the depth chart and started the last eight games of the season, throwing for 706 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions.

“Anything can happen; it’s football,” said Newton, who has a 5-3 record as a starter and knows he still has the chance to make an impact. “Last year, I went from a (No.) 3 to (No.) 1 in what seemed like a snap of the finger.”

This season, Phillips and Sanders didn’t make a snap decision, as they mulled over their quarterback options 16 practices into fall camp.

“I told them that choosing between them is like choosing between my two daughters,” Sanders said.

One argument against the veteran Hartline was that starting either Newton or Mossakowski would be better for the long-term success of the Cats, something Phillips said didn’t factor into his decision.

“It wasn’t close enough to go with the younger guys,” Phillips said. “We felt like there was enough separation with the experienced guy, the guy that’s playing fast and the guy that’s been more efficient in the things we want to try and get done. We felt like he was the guy who won the job.”

For now, Hartline’s two backups will have to settle for fighting for sole ownership of the No.2 role, as they bide their time on the sidelines.

“I back up the coaches 110 percent. It’s the right decision, right now,” Mossakowski said.

The “right decision” means that for the third consecutive year, Hartline is the guy opening the season as the starter under center for the Cats.

Everything up to this point in his collegiate career—the naysayers, the injury, the struggles and the competitions—are a moot point to Hartline.

“You just keep moving and moving forward and can’t take a back seat to anybody,” Hartline said. “You’ve got to go out there and do what the coaches tell you, but you’ve got to do more: You’ve got to make plays, make all the right throws and you’ve got to prove that you’re a fifth-year senior quarterback. If you can’t do that, then I don’t deserve to be playing.”