Over the past few months, we’ve been focusing intently on Kentucky basketball after the hiring of John Calipari. We’ve done so for a few reasons: 1) Kentucky fans appetite for basketball information has been utterly insatiable lately, so we’ve obliged 2) It’s been really fun to write about basketball with Calipari at the helm and 3) basketball has always been my prime area of interest in Kentucky sports.
With that said, football season is upon us and there is reason to be excited about something other than a John Wall highlight.
Rich Brooks has done so much work to make Kentucky football as much fun to follow as UK basketball (and frankly, over the past couple years, it has been more fun), and even though John Calipari’s arrival has put football on the back burner, we have a season coming up that I know I can’t wait for.
Anytime Rich Brooks has spoken about his team for the 2009-2010 (hopefully it runs into 2010), he has not hesitated to show optimism about the upcoming year.
For that reason, we won’t wait any longer to we begin our series of positional previews for the Kentucky Wildcats and Louisville Cardinals. We will alternate between UK and UofL each day. Keep an eye out for the first UofL preview Wednesday morning.
They say that quarterback is the most important position on the football field. Last year’s Kentucky Wildcats were really the epitome of that cliche. The defense (or as we here at the Pinkie call them, the Whomp Squad) last year was phenomenal. There was serious talent at the running back position, but there were never really enough holes to run through.
There were times when UK was very effectively quarterbacked. When that happened, you got a glimpse into UK’s potential. UK’s two most exciting wins were marked by an extended stretch of excellent play by Mike Hartline in games against Arkansas and East Carolina.
There were times when UK was quarterbacked very poorly. When that happened, it seemed like the team was always going to be held back. The South Carolina and Florida games come to mind here.
Most of the time, Mike Hartline, who opened the season as the starter, was mediocre, could not stretch the field deep and seemed to lack the confidence to succeed in the SEC. For that reason, UK decided to experiment with freshman Randall Cobb at the position, even though his future was not at quarterback. A good atlete at the position added a different dimension to the team, but Randall Cobb lost all of his games as a starter.
In the end, partially thanks to an injury to Randall Cobb, it was redshirt sophomore Hartline leading UK to its third consecutive bowl win.
Even during the stretches of good play, it just felt like UK had a limited ceiling as a team because of the quarterback position. UK’s passing game ranked 96th in the nation last season.
UK entered practice leading up to the upcoming season committed to playing Randall Cobb at wide receiver. Even though Cobb will line up wide the majority of the time, he will still see time under center situationally. With a player like Cobb, you have to find ways to get the ball in his hands.
Even so, Cobb will not return to starting this season, so let’s take a look at the guys who have a shot at seeing time.
Mike Hartline RS Junior 6-6 204
2008 Stats: 172-311 (55.3%) 9 TD’s 8 INT 104.7 rating
In case you’re not familiar with the QB rating system, a 104.7 rating by Mike Hartline is not like a 104.7 rating by Peyton Manning in the NFL.
Hartline was the most talked about Cat on last year’s roster, and also the most maligned. In other words, he was Michael Porter during the 2008-2009 season before Michael Porter was. A lot of the flak that Hartline caught was undeserved and even more of it was unduely harsh, but that does not change the fact that Hartline has some holes in his game.
If I had to pinpoint Hartline’s three biggest flaws from last season, I would say arm strength, decision making, and lack of confidence. The three are all very intertwined. Hartline recognized he lacked a bit in arm strength, but I think he in turn underestimated his own ability, and therefore made some poor check down decisions. It’s much more common to see a QB try to fit too many balls into spaces too tight, not be woefully unwilling to push the ball downfield.
In order for Hartline to make the leap from game manager and nothing more to quarterback who can win you a game when he needs to, he’s got to improve in these three areas.
Hartline, as I mentioned earlier, finished last season with his best play of the season in the Liberty Bowl, even showing the ability to stretch the field. Hopefully that game will buoy his confidence.
Will Fidler RS Junior 6-4 229
2008 Stats: 3-4 (75%) 26 yards 0 TD 0 INT 91.7 rating
Fidler saw mop up action in only 3 games last season, but he is still being overlooked a bit in my mind. Fidler is without a doubt number 2 on the depth chart right now, and according to Rick Brooks, it could stay that way even with the high profile freshman knocking on the door: “Will Fidler right now is our number two and he’ll stay there as long as he earns the right to stay there. It is conceivable that one of the freshmen could move up to number two. It is conceivable that Will could keep them at number three.”
Fidler has played well this offseason when given the opportunity, including in the Blue-White game this spring when he led his team to the victory. “Will at times looked better than I have ever seen in spring practice and one of those times was his opening drive in the Blue/White scrimmage,” said Brooks.
Morgan Newton Freshman 6-4 217
2008 Stats (HS): 1938 yards passing 22 TD’s, 1664 rushing yards 26 TD’s
Newton is the most highly rated incoming freshman UK has had at QB in a VERY long time, so logically, after a season of mediocre QB play, many UK fans see him as the answer at the position. If only it were that simple.
Newton is going to be tremendous at this level, it really is just a matter of time. He’s a true pocket passer who possesses the athletic tools to break out of the pocket and make a big play. Even so, talent does not immediately translate to results, especially at quarterback and especially as a freshman.
Newton has the deep ball in his repertoire that UK fans so desperately longer for last season, and he throws it beautifully. He’s also very accurate, and would give Rich Brooks the ability to mix in some option looks and actually have a QB who’s a threat to keep the ball.
If you go on skills and skills alone, he’s the answer, but again, it’s not that simple.
Ryan Mossakowski Freshman 6-4 208
2007 Stats (HS Junior): 2963 yards passing 19 TD’s
Moss was nearly as highly rated as Newton, but he suffered a shoulder injury that derailed the second half of his senior year.
Mossakowski is also a natural pocket passer, but does not give UK the running threat that Newton does. He requires some time in the pocket to make his throws due to a slower than average release, but when he gets set he can put the ball where ever he wants. He’s the kind of guy who could be absolutely tremendous with a solid offensive line and receiving corps.
Rich Brooks has made it abundantly clear that Mike Hartline will be the starter when the season opens in Cincinnati: “right now, in my mind, there is no question who our starting quarterback is for the Miami of Ohio game.”
Incumbents, particularly at QB, are difficult to unseat, and when you consider how difficult UK’s schedule is to start the season, experience will be highly valuable.
As bad as the quarterback play was last season, the play at wide receiver was arguably worse, especially after Dicky Lyons went down and UK’s second best option, Randall Cobb, moved to quarterback. UK lost only Lyons from the receiving corps, and gains Cobb, who will play receiver full time, and JUCO transfer Chris Matthews. We will fully preview the position next Monday, but it will be better, which will significantly improve the passing game, regardless who’s taking the snaps.
In the end though, I believe Mike Hartline, health permitting, will man the quarterback position for the vast majority of the season. There will be times when UK brings in a change of pace at the position, whether it’s Cobb or Newton, but I believe Hartline will do enough to earn starts all year.
Whoever plays in the early season will take his lumps at QB. UK will open as favorites in the first two games against Miami (OH) and UofL, but then plays two of the more difficult home games that you will ever find against top 5 Florida and Alabama. UK then hits the road against South Carolina and Auburn. All SEC road games are tough.
I would be absolutely shocked if anyone not named Hartline starts any of the first four games. The idea of giving a kid like Morgan Newton his first start against Florida or Alabama is not something that Rich Brooks will be too crazy about.
The first potential serious QB controversy could come after the Alabama game if UK gets poor play at the position. However, a first career start in Columbia or the Loveliest Village on the Plains is not much better than against Florida or Alabama.
No one can reasonably much better than a 1-3 record in that stretch of 4 games, but it’s going to be pretty important for Mike Hartline to at least show some signs in those games. An 0-4 stretch with poor passing performances is going to seriously turn up the volume on the call-in shows, particularly with a weak Louisiana-Monroe up next.
I’m far from sure about this, but I believe that Hartline will remain the starter, mostly because I think UK is going to sneak out of USC or Auburn with a win.
I think you will see much more consistent play out of Mike Hartline this season for a few reasons: 1) he’s got a year of experience and an offseason under his belt 2) he will play behind a more experienced offensive line 3) the play at wide receiver will be much improved.
I look for Hartline to start all 12 games this year and boost his numbers across all categories, particularly completion percentage, yards per attempt, and TD-INT ratio. Morgan Newton is his biggest threat, and if he pushes Hartline while Mike struggles, his leash could go from short to yanked by game 6. I say Hartline holds off Newton, at least for 2009.
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