Will Fidler has paid his dues.
While classmate Mike Hart line became the Kentucky starting quarterback, Fidler was on the sideline dealing with the aftereffects of shoulder surgery.
Fidler was assumed to be an afterthought at that point, yet after a decent spring practice and fall camp, he was named Hartline's backup going into this season. When Hartline went down with a knee injury against South Carolina, Fidler got the call.
But when it was time to name a starting quarterback for the Auburn game, Kentucky Coach Rich Brooks bypassed Fidler and went with true freshman Morgan Newton.
It wasn't an easy decision for Brooks. He knew that passing over a well-respected veteran for a rookie wouldn't sit well with some of the older players. Yet he and the coaching staff said that going with Newton, a highly touted prospect from Indiana with perhaps more raw playmaking ability than Fidler, was in the best short-term and long-term interests of the program.
To his credit, Fidler didn't pout or make a fuss. And when Brooks called his number late in the third quarter at Auburn with the Cats trailing 14-7, the Henderson County native came through. He got UK into scoring position on his first drive, but Lones Seiber missed a 49-yard field goal. On his second drive, he completed a key fourth-down pass to T.C. Drake before tying the game on a 2-yard quarterback draw with 6:29 left.
Newton will start again this week against Louisiana-Monroe, but Brooks said Fidler earned the right to play both with his performance against Auburn and with how he handled himself after not getting the promotion he had hoped for.
"I couldn't be prouder of Will Fidler if he was my own son," Brooks said. "He's been through a lot here, and it hasn't gone his way, so to speak, but every day he comes out there and works and competes and does everything he can to make it right and to help this team. Last week, in a lot of ways, was kind of the ultimate slap in the face for him when we elected to start the freshman quarterback, and he handled that very well. I'm very hopeful that this experience in the last two games, will help him become a more consistent playmaker because he's just an outstanding young man."
Fidler said offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders broke the news to him on Monday that Newton would be the starter for the Auburn game. Asked to describe his feelings, Fidler said he was disappointed, but not mad.
"I was looking forward to having a shot to possibly start the game," Fidler said. "I just told (Sanders) I can accept that, and I'd still be ready to play. It basically just made me more motivated all week. Coach Brooks talked to me later in the week, and he said that it's kind of a crappy deal, but it's what they felt like we needed to do and that he was proud of me for the way I handled it."
Fidler leaned heavily on his family after getting the tough news from Sanders, and his father, Bill, said the family took it harder than Will did.
"It was a hard thing for us to talk about; very, very difficult," Bill Fidler said. "Will has nothing but respect for the entire coaching staff. I've been in the business world, and everybody has a boss. You have to listen to what they're telling you and do what they need you to do. I told him two things: It's OK to agree and disagree with your boss as long as you do it professionally, and never, ever give up."
Fidler took his father's advice to heart. The first thing he did was reach out to Newton.
"I just told him I was here for him if he needed anything, and he needed to walk around with his chin up and be a leader and be somebody the offense can look at and have confidence in," Fidler said. "I told him he needed to establish that last week, and I think he did a pretty good job."
Newton showed flashes of the potential that made him a Parade All-American in high school. But second-half mistakes (turning the wrong way on a handoff, failing to send Randall Cobb in motion on a reverse, failing to go through all of his reads) began catching up with Newton, and Brooks decided to go to Fidler for a steady hand.
"I was thinking, 'All right, this is every quarterback's dream to be in that situation and, luckily, we really pulled together as a team," Fidler said.
Fidler is now settling into his role as Newton's backup/relief pitcher.
"There's going to be times when a freshman goes through a spurt where things don't go right," UK head coach for offense Joker Phillips said. "As long as things are going right, we'll play (Newton). But I think the other guy (Fidler) deserves to play also. I think the gap was closed a little bit last week."
Fidler says he's in the same situation as when Hartline was the starter.
"I was just one snap away from playing," he said. "I had to be ready and prepared the whole ball game. I think I did a good job of getting ready when I was called. I got warmed up real quick and went in there and felt pretty good."
Brooks said the swelling in Derrick Locke's strained right knee has gone down and that his status has gone from doubtful to questionable for the Louisiana-Monroe game.
■ Sophomore defensive back Taiedo Smith has been tested for the H1N1 flu, Brooks said Tuesday. The results are still unknown. Smith has played in all six games and has made nine tackles, mainly in the nickel package.
Junior tailback Moncell Allen also missed practice with flu-like symptoms.