UK QB Newton relishes chance to start again

QB relishes roleas a starterfor UK's bowl game

ccosby@herald-leader.comDecember 24, 2010 

UK Football

Morgan Newton has eight starts to his credit going into the bowl game. Kentucky is 5-3 in those games.

JOSEPH REY AU

  • Bowl game

    BBVA Compass Bowl: Kentucky vs. Pittsburgh

    When: Noon Saturday, Jan. 8 Where: Birmingham, Ala.

  • Career statistics

    Season GP Cmp.-Att.-Int. Yds. TDs

    2009-10 8 79-133-7 706 6

    2010-11 4 4-7-0 54 0

    Totals 12 81-140-7 760 6

Morgan Newton had his dream job as a true freshman and then ended up losing it.

Now, Newton has his job back again, and this time he's hoping to hold on to it for good.

Last fall, a knee injury to Mike Hartline thrust Newton into the starting quarterback position at Kentucky a little more than a third of the way into his freshman season.

The end results were positive, as the Wildcats went 5-3 in the eight games that Newton started. But when the quarterback competition was re-opened in fall camp, Newton came up short and spent most of the season watching Hartline throw for a career-high 3,178 yards and 23 touchdowns.

But Hartline's suspension for an off-the-field incident has thrust Newton back into the limelight again, as he'll be handed the keys to the UK offense for the Jan. 8 BBVA Compass Bowl matchup with Pittsburgh.

Newton was visibly upset after Hartline was announced as the starter in August, but for now, he's back in business.

"I've been blessed with another opportunity," Newton said. "It's an opportunity to get better, to try and come out and do big things in the Pittsburgh game and get ready for spring ball and next year."

The game could have big ramifications on the future of the quarterback position at UK. Newton, Ryan Mossakowski and newcomer Maxwell Smith will all be given a chance to show what they can do in spring practice. But Newton already has eight starts under his belt compared to zero for the other two, and he could get a real leg up if he plays well and leads the Cats to a win in the bowl.

When asked if it's a chance for Newton to make a statement, UK Coach Joker Phillips said, "I hope it is. It's a heck of an opportunity for him to get a game in before spring ball starts when the competition heats back up."

Hartline had his ups and downs at UK, and still had his share of critics even after his solid senior campaign. But he was respected in the locker room for his on-field play, something Newton is in the process of trying to do.

"I'm really good friends with a lot of these guys and they've all been behind me through all of this," Newton said. "And Mike has too. I believe they'll be ready to rally behind me. Being able to lead is a big, big part of the position."

Junior receiver Randall Cobb said the team is backing Newton 100 percent.

"(Newton) may have had a little more support with the outsiders, but with our team we're going to support and respect whoever's back there (at quarterback)," Cobb said. "We know what he can do and we know what he's capable of."

Cobb is viewed as a "face of the program" kind of guy, a guy who represents UK football both on and off the field. Like Cobb, Newton has served as a host for key recruits on their visits.

Cobb sees Newton as having many of those same traits and even takes it a step further.

"He's better than me in all those phases," Cobb said. "He's a better leader than me for sure. He actually doesn't speak up as much as he should. He feels the same way I do about a lot of things, and I think he's now in a role where he feels more comfortable to say some of the things he wants to."

In order to reach those heights, Newton must first produce on the field. He had his moments as a rookie, throwing for six touchdowns and running for two in his eight starts. But with Newton still learning the intricacies of the position, (going through progressions, reading defenses, changing in and out of protections), the UK coaching staff handled him with kid gloves, relying on a running game led by Cobb and Derrick Locke and an opportunistic defense.

While Newton isn't ready to handle a game plan as extensive as Hartline was, UK offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said he's come a long way.

"Last year it was a very limited playbook," Sanders said. "There weren't a whole lot of different passes on there. He's not doing 'trig' (trigonometry) and the things Mike was doing, but he's up to Algebra II, anyway. Last year we were still adding, subtracting and dividing and stuff. This year we've been able to add a few letters into our math."

Sanders said the staff can live with mistakes as long as they aren't catastrophic mistakes.

"The thing you want to manage with a young guy is to make sure they aren't too bad," Sanders said. "Last year when Morgan dropped back to throw you knew there was a chance somebody's band was going to be playing. You just hoped it was your band, because the band always plays after big plays. He's made a lot of progress in those areas, but you still have to work to eliminate the negatives. He's come a million miles since Clemson last year."

Newton is a sturdy 6-4, 235 and is a threat to tuck the ball and run, something that wasn't in the offense under Hartline. Phillips said he's also a more confident runner than a year ago.

"In fall camp, we couldn't tackle him," Phillips said. "Hopefully Pitt will have a hard time tackling him also."

Phillips said that it's all a matter of consistency with Newton. There are moments in practice he can look like the second coming of a young Donovan McNabb, throwing downfield bombs and picking up big chunks of yardage on the ground. But then on the next series he might throw the ball all over the place.

"It's not just day after day," Phillips said when asked about consistency with Newton. "It's play after play. He's had good first halves of practice and the second half he'll look like he's lost. We want him to put together a whole practice first instead of worrying about day after day after day."

While Phillips said he'll use Cobb occasionally at quarterback in the Wildcat formation against Pitt, the offense, and Newton's dream job, is in his hands.

At least for now.

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