The summer buzz surrounding the Kentucky football camp has almost exclusively been directed at freshman quarterbacks Morgan Newton and Ryan Mossakowski.
The buzz is understandable. It's a rarity for Kentucky to welcome in two highly touted prep quarterbacks to one class.
But while Newton and Mossakowski are on campus getting acclimated to college, Mike Hartline is in the trenches trying to put his stamp on the 2009 team.
Hartline, a junior this fall, knows a lot of Kentucky fans are just counting the days until one of the freshmen takes control of the Wildcats' offense.
But he doesn't sound like someone who's ready to hand over the job.
"My goal is to get everybody to feel that I'm the guy," Hartline said. "I want it to be a situation where there's no doubt I should be the guy."
Hartline's tone and body language didn't suggest any cockiness or disrespect toward Newton or Mossakowski. He acknowledged the tremendous talent of both quarterbacks and admitted he wasn't totally satisfied with his performance in the spring.
But when Hartline looks at where he was a year ago and sees the roller-coaster ride he managed to survive, it's hard for him not to feel as if he should be the guy.
Hartline went from a projected backup to a starter seemingly overnight, led Kentucky to a surprising 4-0 start, lost his best wide receiver and tailback to season-ending knee-injuries, was benched after a humiliating 63-5 loss at Florida, and resurfaced to play well in a Liberty Bowl win over East Carolina — all while serving as a constant whipping boy on Internet message boards and sports talk-radio shows.
"I never really had time to sit down and think about everything that had happened; I was just trying to make it through the season," Hartline said. "But no doubt the experience made me stronger. Now I know what it takes to make it through an entire SEC season physically and mentally, and I know what the coaches want out of me. Experience like that helps."
Hartline is putting that experience to use this summer as the unquestioned leader during offseason workouts. That was hard for him to do last summer considering the circumstances.
After spring practice, Brooks decided the quarterback competition between Hartline and Curtis Pulley would continue into the fall. Most assumed it was Pulley's job to lose, but it was Hartline who showed more reliability and accountability over the summer.
When off-the-field issues officially ended Pulley's UK career at the start of fall camp, Hartline was immediately thrust into the limelight.
"I'm being a lot more vocal this summer," Hartline said. "I was thrown into the leadership thing, and we really didn't know who the quarterback was going to be. I was just trying to make the best out of it. But I had never really played, so I didn't want to step on anybody's toes. Now that I've been there, I can be more vocal and get on top of guys and make sure they're working. And I have to make sure I'm taking care of my business, which I am."
When the UK coaching staff turned to freshman Randall Cobb at quarterback for the last four regular-season games, many wondered whether Hartline had seen his last start in a Wildcats uniform, knowing Newton and Mossakowski were on board.
But Cobb's heavy workload (part-time quarterback, part-time receiver, full-time punt returner) eventually caught up with him, and he missed the Liberty Bowl after hurting his knee in the regular-season finale against Tennessee.
In stepped Hartline, who shook off the flu — "Every step I took before the game, I felt like my stomach was going to explode," he said — and threw for 204 yards and a touchdown to earn Most Valuable Offensive Player honors in UK's 25-19 win.
Hartline said it's games like the Liberty Bowl and the Arkansas game (in which he threw two late touchdowns in a come-from-behind win) that make it easier to deal with fans who called, and are still calling, for Brooks to pull the plug on him.
"I don't really read the newspapers or message boards too much," he said. "My mom does, and it upsets her, but some of the things I've heard people say about me are the same things they said about (ex-UK quarterback) Andre (Woodson). The next thing you know, he blows up.
"Bad games, you get criticism; good games, you get praise. You just have to take the good with the bad. I'm mature enough to know when I have a bad game, and I'm mature enough to know that I'm going to catch flak for it. People are going to say, 'Why didn't you do this, why didn't you do that, you're no good.' But then the good games come, and that's what you remember."
Hartline's performance in the Liberty Bowl led Brooks to name him the starter going into spring practice. Though Hartline didn't do anything to change Brooks' mind, he didn't necessarily solidify his position, either. He struggled throwing the deep ball, which was one of his primary problems last fall. And for much of the Blue-White game, it was little-used junior Will Fidler who was the Cats' most effective quarterback.
The coach-speak term used to describe Hartline last year was "game manager." That could be interpreted as a quarterback with limited skills who, basically, is asked to step back, not screw up and let others win the game.
Hartline admits he was probably overdoing it in the spring trying to show he could be a playmaker and not just a "game manager."
"I wanted to take the next step and might have tried to do too much," he said. "I just had to get back to realizing what I do best and improving on that with a lot of film study and just connecting with guys. We're going to be deeper and have a lot more weapons on offense this year, so I just need to be patient and let things come to me."
Hartline doesn't have the arm strength or the physical skills of Newton or Mossakowski, although Mossakowski is still recovering from the effects of shoulder surgery.
What he does have is nine career starts and an understanding of the Kentucky offense.
Hartline's older brother, Brian, played at Ohio State last year and was drafted in the fourth round by the Miami Dolphins. By watching and attending some of his brother's practices and games last year, Hartline got an up-close view of the nation's hottest freshman quarterback, Terrelle Pryor.
"(Newton and Mossakowski) are both tremendously talented guys who I think will eventually be great quarterbacks, and they're only going to push me and make me better," Hartline said. "But no matter who you talk to, trying to come out and be a starting quarterback as a freshman is one of the hardest things to do. I watched Terrelle Pryor, who's just a ridiculous athlete, and he struggled. I think back to when I was a freshman. I would have run out on the field and played if they asked me, but it would have gone really, really bad."
It's hard to imagine Brooks not sending Hartline out for the first snap against Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 5. But Hartline doesn't want to just keep the seat warm until one of the freshmen is ready. He wants to be the guy.
"I'm going to help those guys out, but I can't share all my secrets," Hartline said with a laugh. "They're my teammates, but we're still competing. We want them to get their feet wet and ask questions, and I'll tell them the right answers. But as a college quarterback, you have to learn and go through the growing pains and experience a lot of that on your own. There's nothing that can really prepare you for it. Andre went through it, and I went through it last year. I'm hoping it will pay off for me this year."