The freshman question gnaws at Cats

Season uncertain for 4-star recruits

ccosby@herald-leader.comAugust 30, 2009 

  • SCOUTING THE QUARTERBACKS

    Coach: Randy Sanders is in his fourth year coaching quarterbacks at Kentucky and takes on the role of offensive coordinator this season. Sanders spent most of his coaching career at his alma mater, Tennessee, where he was offensive coordinator for the 1999 Fiesta Bowl when the Vols beat Florida State for the national championship.

    The main man: Mike Hartline took his share of lumps last year. But when you consider that he was unexpectedly thrust into the starter's role, lost his best receiver (Dicky Lyons) and a dangerous all-purpose back (Derrick Locke) to knee injuries by mid-season, and played with five true freshman receivers, his numbers (1,666 yards, nine TDs, eight interceptions in nine starts) weren't all that bad. Hartline is bigger, stronger, more experienced and reportedly throwing the ball better in practice. With more reliable weapons in his arsenal, the UK coaches are expecting major improvement in 2009.

    The supporting cast: Sophomore Will Fidler has re-emerged from a shoulder injury to stake a claim. Fidler has size (6-4, 229) and showed in the spring that he can make some throws. Sophomore receiver Randall Cobb will see time at QB in the Wildcat package.

    Newcomers to watch: Freshmen Morgan Newton and Ryan Mossakowski might be the future of the quarterback position but, for right now, they're still learning the system and auditioning for the No. 3 quarterback job. At least one of them will probably play, but it's not out of the realm of possibility that both could redshirt in 2009.

    CHIP COSBY

Kentucky has three-fifths of its quarterback equation figured out. Mike Hartline is the starter, Will Fidler is the backup, and we'll see Randall Cobb periodically in the Wildcat package.

But the UK staff is still trying to figure out what to do with freshmen Morgan Newton and Ryan Mossakowski. When the duo, both four-star prospects, signed with UK, it was assumed that they had a legitimate chance to battle Hartline for the starting job. But with both on the outside looking in, UK Coach Rich Brooks and head coach for offense Joker Phillips must decide whether to play one of the freshmen or redshirt both. And if one of them does play, when is exactly the right time to play him?

"That's a mystery," Phillips said. "It's a mystery to all of us. After every scrimmage, we sit down to see if we can come up with a decision, and we still haven't."

The offense will hope that it can get by with Hartline, Fidler and, if necessary, Cobb in the season opener against Miami (Ohio) on Saturday. The Wildcats will then have an open date before playing Louisville on Sept. 19, and the staff can further evaluate Newton and Mossakowski and go from there.

"But as of right now, we still haven't made a solid decision," Phillips said.

UK's pre-season practices have been closed to the media, but Brooks has been highly complimentary of Hartline during fall camp. And while Brooks said Hartline is throwing the ball better than he did last year, it's just as much the people around him.

"He had confidence a year ago, and I think he did a pretty good job of leadership," Brooks said. "The difference is there isn't as many incomplete passes. He's throwing it more accurately, but the other half of the equation is people are catching the darn ball. We dropped a bunch of balls last year."

Being named the backup quarterback has to be considered somewhat of a personal triumph for Fidler. He arrived at UK with Hartline in 2006, and the pair redshirted together. But Fidler suffered a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder during the 2007 season and struggled to get back in the groove. He considered transferring that summer.

"I figured it would be best to just stick it out and see what happens," Fidler said. "I didn't want to give up without giving myself a full chance. Now I'm at No. 2, and it's the closest I've ever been to actually playing."

Fidler played three games in mop-up duty last fall and, when Newton and Mossakowski signed in February, many thought Fidler was the odd man out. But he raised eyebrows by leading a couple of early scoring drives in the Blue-White Spring Game and, with Newton and Mossakowski still learning the nuances of the college game, Fidler is one snap away from being the No. 1 guy.

"I'm real happy for Young Will (a nickname Fidler was given as a freshman)," Phillips said. "It's been a long haul for him. He's had to battle from behind and try and catch back up. But I think he's finally recovered from shoulder surgery, and he's hung in there and really come on."

Fidler said his performance in the Blue-White Game was an all-around confidence boost, for himself, his coaches and his teammates.

"I have the confidence that if called upon I can go in there and win the game for us," Fidler said. "That is one of the most important things for a quarterback, especially on the field, is your teammates looking back at you in the huddle and knowing that you're going to call the right play, run the right play, throw the ball good, hand it off, and be a leader out there."

Whenever Brooks has been asked about Newton and Mossakowski in fall camp, the exchange has usually gone like this:

Reporter: How are the freshmen looking?

Brooks: Like freshmen.

The staff has seen glimpses of the talent that made both QBs highly touted prep prospects. But when it comes to recognizing defenses, calling protections, changing plays and getting rid of the ball quickly and accurately, neither can seriously push for the job this early.

Both quarterbacks seemed upbeat about the situation.

"We're still trying to figure out where everybody stands," Newton said. "We know who the top two quarterbacks are right now but, after that, it's not really clear. My goals are still high. I want to play. I want to get involved and help the team, and try and make the program the best I can from an individual standpoint. There's still a lot of time. It's a long season, a 12-game season. There's still time."

Mossakowski said, "There's going to be some frustration because you want to do so well and prove to your teammates and coaches and everyone else that you're here to play. As for redshirting, it's hard to sit on the sidelines. You want to get out there. But it's also hard to just walk into the SEC and start as a freshman."

Phillips said he's preaching patience with the two freshmen and has shown them clips of Hartline and Andre Woodson in their first years in the program to ease the transition.

"You just have to explain to them that it will come," Phillips said. "You can see them get frustrated at times. Mike, at this time last year, wasn't as good as he is this year and, at their age, he wasn't as far along as they are. Andre Woodson wasn't as far along as those guys are right now, either. You just have to get them to understand how it was for the guys ahead of them that now have it."

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