QB battle could last through spring

By Eric Lindsey

When spring football practice started a week ago, the million-dollar question on everybody’s mind was: Who will be the starting quarterback when UK opens its 2008 season?

Five practices into spring workouts and the picture is still as blurry as it was the day former quarterback Andre Woodson threw his final pass. It probably will not get clearer anytime soon either.

Head coach Rich Brooks has repeatedly said the competition between junior Curtis Pulley and freshman Mike Hartline will likely last through the spring and possibly into the fall, and added freshman Will Fidler to the mix after a strong first practice.

The vibe surrounding UK fans is that Pulley will ultimately pull the job out, and based on Pulley’s potential, they might have a point.

Two years ago, Pulley actually held the starting role over Woodson coming out of spring practice. But Pulley quickly fell out of favor with Brooks during the summer and split time between being a backup quarterback, a wide receiver and a kick-block specialist.

Frustrated by a lack of playing time and struggling with academics, Pulley left school in the spring of 2006. By fall, he was back on the team but was redshirted and reduced to the role of a scout team player.

Putting those two rocky years behind him has resulted in a more mature, experienced player, he said.

“I’ve just been becoming more of a student of the game, studying film and everything,” Pulley said. “I used to be a guy that would go out there not knowing the plays, just going out there and running around. But now I’m more focused on learning the plays and going through the progressions.”

Pulley will also have to prove his progression off the field because of his shaky academic and leadership history, but he said he will not make the same mistake twice.

“I learned a lot from the last time that happened about slacking off,” Pulley said. “Now I know I need to stay focused and lead the team.”

Pulley, unlike Hartline and Fidler, brings an added dimension to his game: the ability to run. Pulley resembles quarterbacks like West Virginia’s Pat White, but offensive coordinator Joker Phillips was quick to point out that UK will not change its offense if Pulley wins the job.

“We don’t want to get into where we are doing a lot of quarterback runs like West Virginia and those teams,” Phillips said. “I think when you start doing that, you start limiting what type of quarterbacks you can get. We want to still be able to throw the ball down the field.”

And even though some signs point to Pulley taking over the reins — he’s listed No. 1 on the depth chart — Brooks and Phillips have said that Hartline is as ready as ever to lead the Cats.

“No question about it,” Phillips said of Hartline’s chances. “He’s improved dramatically between last year and this year, and we think he’s a guy that we can win with.”

Hartline wants to be the No. 1 guy, and said he has the leadership to man UK’s offense, but he has thrown only six career passes. Pulley, on the other hand, has thrown just 14 passes, making the battle even harder to gauge for Brooks and the coaching staff.

Brooks said he will obviously analyze each of the quarterbacks’ throwing mechanics, but said he’s more interested in finding a guy who avoids the negative plays and makes the positive ones.

To figure that out could come as early as the end of spring, but Brooks is hoping any decision will not be for the wrong reasons.

“I’m hopeful that one guy will take charge and do it, but I hope that it isn’t because the other guy isn’t doing it very well,” Brooks said. “I hope there is very, very good competition, and I think there will be.”

No matter who wins the job, both quarterbacks understand that fans will expect them to lead the Cats to a third straight bowl.

“We know that the main goal is for us as an offense to get better,” Hartline said. “Whether it’s Will out there, Curtis or myself, we want the best player out there on the field to help us win.”