Mike Hartline was going to take the first snap of fall camp as the University of Kentucky's No. 1 quarterback whether Curtis Pulley was around or not.
And while Pulley's dismissal has put Hartline in the driver's seat for the starting job, it has also changed the entire landscape of UK's quarterback position heading into its season opener at Louisville on Aug. 31.
UK offensive coordinator Joker Phillips also emphasized that nobody should pencil in Hartline just yet.
“He's not the starter,” Phillips said of Hartline. “He will get the first reps (repetitions with the first team), but if I name him the starter, what do I tell Will? We're going to let them all compete and see what happens.”
It looks now as if sophomore Will Fidler has new life. Fidler began last fall as the No. 3 quarterback before being forced to the sideline after season-ending shoulder surgery. He slowly worked his way back into a groove this spring, and said he hasn't experienced any shoulder soreness over the summer.
“It just feels good to have an opportunity,” Fidler said at Media Day on Tuesday. “This time last year, I wasn't sure if I would have a chance to play, and then I got hurt. Now I know I have a chance to come out and compete for the job.”
Kentucky also signed three quarterbacks in February, and two of them will get a chance to see time at quarterback this fall. Both won Mr. Football honors in Tennessee last season: Randall Cobb, a 5-foot-11, 185-pounder from Alcoa and DeAunte Mason, a 6-foot-3, 215-pounder from Nashville.
UK's third QB signee, Matt Roark, said he will most likely focus on wide receiver for the time being. Walk-on Tyler Sargent, a 6-foot-4, 208-pound redshirt freshman from Waynesville, Ohio, will also get some work at QB.
Fall camp just started Tuesday and the players aren't in full pads yet, so it's still early for the coaches to make any long-term projections about any of the freshmen, but Cobb has opened eyes. Earlier this summer, Phillips compared Cobb's talent level to former Wildcats star Keenan Burton and said after Kentucky's first practice that Cobb might be the most impressive rookie he's seen at UK.
Brooks said his original plan was to split up Cobb's practice time between quarterback and wide receiver, another serious area of need for his offense. But he said after Wednesday's practice that the coaches were leaning toward giving him more extended action at quarterback, thanks to the ability shown by the other freshman wide receivers. But he also cautioned, “We'll wait a few more days before we anoint anybody. Once the pads get on you can tell a little bit better.”
Cobb doesn't have much experience at receiver (his only catch in high school went for 49 yards and a score), but he said he's not obsessing over where he ends up playing.
“I'm not going to worry about that right now,” he said. “I'm just going to go where they put me, and see if I can help the team.”
Cobb's high school coach, Gary Rankin, said that Cobb displayed the same kind of attitude during a prep career that saw him win four consecutive state titles and earn Class AA Mr. Football honors in Tennessee.
“He'll jump right in and won't gripe and complain,” Rankin said. “He's such a team guy; never a ‘me' guy. He could have had some of the most gaudy stats ever playing for us, but he understood that we needed to balance things out for the best of the team. I thought he was the best football player in the state of Tennessee last year.”
So why didn't Cobb end up at the University of Tennessee, especially when his high school was just a hop, skip and a jump from Big Orange country and all his family were Volunteers fans?
Cobb said that UT just flat out missed him. Tennessee came in after Cobb had committed to UK and tried to sway him, but it was too little, too late.
“They said they never had a chance to see me, but they were only 10 minutes away,” Cobb said. “Everything sounded like a big lie coming from them. I just thought this was the best situation for me.”
Most teams projected Cobb as a cornerback, but Cobb said he had no interest in playing defense.
“I wanted the ball in my hands,” he said.
The knock on Cobb as a quarterback was his height. He said the only schools to offer him a scholarship as a QB were UK, Tennessee and Middle Tennessee.
But Cobb has a reputation as a breathtaking athlete, and those who have seen him throw say he has plenty of arm strength.
UK receiver Kyrus Lanxter, a high school teammate of Cobb, says Cobb can be a factor at quarterback.
“He throws a nice ball, and he makes good decisions,” Lanxter said. In seven-on-seven drills (over the summer), he made just as good of decisions as Mike and Curtis did.”
Rankin said Cobb also possesses the ever-so-important leadership qualities to be a successful quarterback.
“He leads the right way, not a rah-rah guy, but he leads by example,” Rankin said. “He's got character, he works hard, and he makes his grades.”
Mason wasn't quite as highly touted as Cobb, but his high school coach, Tony Brunetti, said he wouldn't rule out Mason making a push on the depth chart.
“I wouldn't be surprised if after 17 days (of practice), he's right up there,” Brunetti said. “I think the only real weakness with him right now is recognizing coverages, but that's with every young quarterback. That will come.”
Brunetti said his offense at Pearl-Cohn High was a multiple attack that used variations of the spread, veer, and option, and Mason threw for 2,375 yards and ran for 1,052 yards as a senior while earning Class AAA Mr. Football honors.
“People said that our offense looked like we drew plays up in the dirt, but we did that because we had a guy that was special at quarterback,” Brunetti said. “I know (Andre) Woodson was a good passer, and Pulley was a runner, but DeAunte can do both.”