The 2008 college football season left the Kentucky Wildcats with more questions than answers.
How does the defense perform with superstars like Trevard Lindley, Micah Johnson, and (at the time) Jeremy Jarmon? How do the Wildcats improve the running game with Tony Dixon graduating? But the most pressing questions involved the passing game, many of which involved criticisms of quarterback Mike Hartline.
Hartline did not have a stellar season that Kentucky fans were used to in Andre Woodson's junior and senior seasons with the team.
Hartline even lost his job completely on the back of sub-par performances at the Mississippi State Bulldogs and Florida Gators to freshman Randall Cobb. Cobb was, after the career-ending injury to Dicky Lyons, the team's number one wide receiver!
Don't count out Hartline yet.
While Hartline is not exactly going to compete for the Heisman in 2009, everything is in place for him to succeed. One big problem that Kentucky had last season was wide receivers.
This offseason, the Wildcats landed four-star junior college recruit Chris Matthews, who was one of the biggest playmakers in JUCO this season. Throw him in with the speedster Cobb and last year's four star recruit, Aaron Boyd who comes off of injury.
To let you know how much of a problem receivers were last year, look no further than the statistics. Lyons went down midway through the game at the South Carolina Gamecocks with 33 receptions and 264 yards. The Gamecocks were the Wildcats sixth game that season. Lyons ended with the most receiving yards for the whole team! The next highest amount was 204 yards from halfback Alfonso Smith.
Another positive for Hartline is the running game. Halfbacks Smith and Derrick Locke return alongside bruising fullback John Conner. Now a senior, Smith was reliable last year as a receiver with 16 catches for 204 yards and a 71 yard touchdown. Smith also ran for 313 yards on 74 carries and a pair of scores.
Locke, however, is an even more complete back than Smith. Locke has run faster than a 4.3 40 yard dash, and has incredible power for a 5-9 190 pounder. Locke is coming off of a pretty nasty knee injury, but the coaching staff has been impressed with his recovery.
Locke is an even better receiver than Smith, recording seven more receptions in 2008, and averaging 4.8 yards per carry.
Indeed, Smith and Locke will keep defenses on their toes. One thing to note about Hartline is that he does not take sacks. Hartline was sacked just five times last year, and has the best sack to pass attempt ratio among the twelve starting quarterbacks in the SEC last year.
Even more good news for Hartline is that the offensive line might be improved in 2009. Said coach Rich Brooks of it, "I think it has improved. But we have to go out and prove that on the field."
A final point for Hartline is the comparison he has to former Wildcat quarterback Woodson. In 2005, Woodson's sophomore season, he was largely inconsistent, throwing six touchdowns and six interceptions and being sacked 30 times. Woodson would battle hotshot freshman Curtis Pulley for the job, and even lost the chance to start in the last game against the Tennessee Volunteers at home.
We all know how the Woodson story would end. In his junior and senior seasons, Woodson would throw 71 touchdowns as opposed to just 18 interceptions. Woodson also holds the record for the most pass attempts in the NCAA without an interception. Woodson was projected to be a top three quarterback in the 2007 NFL Draft at times, but a poor showing in the Senior Bowl and an injury caused his stock to drop him all the way to the sixth round.
Hartline wasn't recruited by the Ohio State Buckeyes for no reason. He has some strong potential to be a talented quarterback for the Wildcats.