The Mike Hartline experience has been quite a ride in 2008.
It started from the opening day of practice when Hartline unexpectedly was thrust into the starting quarterback role. Kentucky Coach Rich Brooks announced just before the players assembled for the team picture that projected starter Curtis Pulley had been dismissed.
Hartline was benched in favor of freshman Randall Cobb after eight games, and he ruffled some feathers with his comments about being replaced.
Now, with UK's season down to an Autozone Liberty Bowl matchup with East Carolina, Hartline has gotten a lifeline.
Cobb is listed as doubtful for the game after knee surgery following the regular-season finale at Tennessee. Hartline has worked with the first team during bowl practices and is the probable starter against the Pirates.
In addition to closing out the season on a positive note, Hartline can gain some momentum going into 2009 when he is likely to compete for starting quarterback with Cobb and incoming freshmen Morgan Newton and Ryan Mossakowski.
"This is definitely a chance for me to get a head start on next season," Hartline said. "I can't say that this is just another game because it isn't. You've got to say to yourself that you'd have a little edge going into spring practice if you can lead the team to a win in the bowl game."
Brooks said Hartline has looked good in bowl practices so far. More importantly, Kentucky's young receivers are making more plays.
"He's throwing the ball much better than he did early in the year, with more velocity and more accuracy," Brooks said
"And we actually look like we're understanding what the routes are now, and sometimes catching it pretty good. That needs to happen for us to have an opportunity to win this game against a good East Carolina defense."
Given a rather conservative game plan and an inexperienced group of receivers, Hartline did an admirable job in leading UK to a 4-0 start.
Then things started going south.
The Wildcats' best receiver, Dicky Lyons Jr., went down with a season-ending knee injury. Kentucky's most productive running back, Derrick Locke, joined Lyons on the sideline soon thereafter.
UK finished the season by losing six of its final eight games.
Hartline wasn't Peyton Manning, and he made his share of bad throws. But he wasn't horrible either. He led the Cats to perhaps their most impressive win of the season, a come-from-behind 21-20 victory over Arkansas, and he has more touchdown passes (eight) than interceptions (seven).
But when you factor in UK's struggles at receiver and with the running game, the Wildcats offense looked ugly at times.
"He got better as the year went on; we just didn't get better around him," Brooks said.
After the Wildcats' 63-5 loss at Florida on Oct. 25, the Kentucky staff decided to go with Cobb. Hartline responded the next day by making the following statement to the media: "It stinks ... No one ever expects to win the starting job and then lose it because guys around him aren't performing the way they should."
Hartline said he made the comments in frustration and immediately regretted them. He apologized to his teammates the next day.
"The day after it happened, I wasn't even sure of what I said, to be honest," Hartline said. "I was so emotional, and I'm an honest guy who wanted to say what he felt. (Afterward) I felt bad. I knew I had to do something to fix it.
"I was worried about losing my teammates' trust. But I think those guys know I'm not the type to throw people under the bus. When I apologized to the offense, half of them didn't even know I made those comments.
"The coaches understood why I was mad. The only thing they said was that you can't reflect that on your teammates. You're not wrong, but the way you said it came out bad."
Hartline's teammates say it's water under the bridge and that they're ready to rally around the redshirt sophomore.
"Everybody says things that they don't mean to say," said senior left tackle Garry Williams. "We all make mistakes, but he apologized for it and we're all cool. Mike seems like he's back to his old self, happy-go-lucky."
"He was just frustrated, and I really don't think he had enough time to think about what he was going to say," junior center Jorge Gonzalez said. "He said what was on his mind at the time, right or wrong. If he could go back and take back what he said, I think he would without any doubt.
"A lot of times when you lose your job and bad things happen, sometimes you don't get another chance. So I know he's excited to see what he can do with this second chance."
To his credit, Hartline learned to accept his backup role and played decently off the bench at Mississippi State and Tennessee.
"I'm not ashamed of what happened over the season or that things didn't go my way," Hartline said. "Those things happen. Things aren't going to be perfect your first year. Andre (Woodson) taught me that. The main thing is, don't quit on yourself."
Hartline knows he'll be in a fight to keep the No. 1 job next fall, but he said this year's trials and tribulations have him prepared to compete.
"I knew Randall was good coming into the season, and I know we'll get a couple of guys coming in next year who are good, too," Hartline said.
"But it'll be good competition. Those guys will push me, and hopefully I'll do the same for them. We'll just have to see where things end up. If I'm a backup, I'll be a team player and do my job when my number is called."