During Kentucky's first four spring practices, it was tough to tell much of a difference among the three quarterbacks competing for the job.
But on Wednesday, one stood out for the first time. Senior-to-be Mike Hartline was clearly the most effective quarterback on the field. Most of his throws found their marks, including a beautiful 80-yard touchdown bomb to Chris Matthews during the 11-on-11 period. Meanwhile, Morgan Newton and Ryan Mossakowski continued to try to find a rhythm.
One practice won't be the determining factor in who wins the job, but it was noteworthy to see one guy establish some brief separation. With 14 career starts under his belt, Hartline is the most experienced of the three, and Coach Joker Phillips said that's starting to show.
"For the first day, he actually showed up more than the other ones," Phillips said. "The thing is, Mike feels a lot more comfortable than the other two. He's been here a long time, he's gotten a lot more reps, he understands where the ball is supposed to be at, and he also understands where the defense is at. He's playing a little faster than the other two right now."
Newton, who started the final eight games last year as a true freshman after Hartline went down with a knee injury, has struggled to find consistency with his throwing. He might drop back and throw a beautiful downfield spiral then try to force a throw or have a pass sail on him.
"The thing about the quarterback position is, it's got to be consistent," Phillips said. Newton "hasn't been consistent this spring. He's made some good throws, but then he'll come back and squeeze a ball in between two defenders. He's got to understand that he's not in high school. The people react a lot faster. What was open in high school isn't open at this level."
Mossakowski has made some nice throws and shown potential but is still adjusting after redshirting last year following shoulder surgery. Phillips said he thinks Mossakowski will get more comfortable with more practice time.
"Reps will help him make up that gap, and that's why we're practicing as fast as we possibly can, because the quarterbacks need the reps more than anybody," he said. "That will give (Mossakowski) a chance to compete for the job."
The quarterbacks will be made available to the media for the first time after Saturday's practice.
Wednesday's practice was spirited, with the offense controlling the red-zone and goal-line drills before the defense bounced back and took charge during the rest of the scrimmage.
Phillips said he's looking to see his team respond to adversity. He gathered the defense for several minutes after the goal-line session, and the defense improved. And running back Jonathan George followed up a fumble by breaking off a 65-yard run.
"This game is 95 percent mental," Phillips said. "We want to see how guys react to a hostile environment. A lot of guys have been reacting the right way, and that's what you like to see."