With college football’s national signing day looming around the corner and the search for the best prospects always a top priority, there is an unusual situation in the bluegrass that draws interest from across the nation. The University of Kentucky football program has made significant strides in addressing its recruiting, especially at the quarterback position.
This past season, with the exception of Tim Tebow and (maybe) Matthew Stafford, the Southeastern Conference was noted for its inconsistent quarterback play. This was especially true for Kentucky, who started the season with redshirt sophomore Mike Hartline calling the signals.
Hartline, who had a college passing stat line of 34 total yards the previous season, came into the early games of the season being recognized for his control of the game. He didn’t garner the noticeable stats and high offensive numbers, but was able to manage the team, completing the hand-off and screen plays called down from the offensive coordinator.
With Kentucky’s early opponents—Louisville, Norfolk State, Middle Tennessee, and Western Kentucky, respectively scheduled—this was a manageable offensive scheme. When the conference schedule came around, though, Hartline’s flaws became more noticeable.
When the usual strength of the SEC and the common mistakes of an inexperienced quarterback meet, there usually aren’t great results. Kentucky noted this and tried to not give Hartline more than he could handle, usually running the ball and setting themselves up with a lot of un-converted third downs, leaving a major piece of the scoring to the defense and specially teams.
So in a midseason adjustment, Kentucky decided to bench Hartline and start true freshman Randall Cobb.
Cobb, who is usually lined up to the outside of the offensive line and receiving passes, is more of a mobile quarterback. Not so much of the Tim Tebow form, but rather a Terrelle Pryor type. Quick and nimble, Cobb was able to scramble out of a lot of situations where Hartline would have been left to throw the ball away or take a sack.
But through Cobb’s play, it was very recognizable that he was meant to be catching passes rather than delivering them. The run became very obvious to UK’s opponents, leaving the Wildcats stuck with little through the air.
So now Kentucky is left with their current situation, but has reasonably high hopes. Cobb was injured in the last regular season game against Tennessee and unable to play in Kentucky’s Liberty Bowl victory. With Cobb out, Hartline returned to the starting position and had a notable game, completing 19-31 passes for 204 yards with one TD and one INT.
This gave Hartline for the season a stat line of 172-311 passes for 1,666 yards with nine TDs and eight INTs. With these stats, it’s reasonable to believe that Hartline should be in the driver’s seat for the starting QB position in 2009.
He has some competition though. Kentucky is expected to sign two of the nation's best quarterback talents in Carmel, Indiana’s Morgan Newton and Frisco Centennial, Texas QB Ryan Mossakowski. These two QBs have their own individual talents that separate them from each other and Hartline.
Newton is an all-purpose QB in that he can throw the deep pass but also can bust out and scramble for a 50+ yard touchdown. Newton is smart, quick, and has a great arm. Mossakowski is a pro-style QB who prefers to sit in the pocket and deliver the deep ball—the type of quarterback Kentucky has been become accustomed to in the past with Andre' Woodson and Tim Couch. Hartline is a conservative quarterback who has an advantage in his game experience, including a bowl win.
So who should start? My guess would be that Hartline will remain the starter and could possibly keep his position, depending on his performance early in the season. With early season games against Florida and Alabama, Hartline will have plenty of opportunities to prove himself. Cobb will go to his natural position of wide receiver, where the Wildcats desperately need him.
Newton will probably take some snaps in the second quarter of games and hold the backup position. Mossakowski, who had his high school senior season ended with shoulder surgery, will most likely redshirt in order to learn the team system and completely heal. This will leave the third string position to redshirt junior Will Fidler.
For any Wildcat fan, though, this is a great position for the future of the QB position. If Hartline does improve and expands from his conservative behavior, Kentucky will have two solid years of good QB play. Those years will be followed by two varied talents to compete for the starting job in Newton and Mossakowski after Hartline’s departure.
This gives you a great picture for the program's future at the QB position. Even if Hartline doesn’t pan out and Newton comes in to start next year, UK will have various forms of talent at the head of the ship for the next four to five years.
Things are looking up for the Wildcats at the QB position. Add this to a solid recruiting class this year and momentum that will build in recruiting in the years to come, and the future of Kentucky football is very promising.
With three consecutive bowl victories, a strong coaching staff, and a head coach in waiting, the foundation for Kentucky football has been set strong to withstand the storm of the SEC.
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