The education and growth process of Morgan Newton continues.
Newton, a four-star quarterback from Carmel, Ind., arrived at Kentucky this summer as one of the most talked-about recruits of the Rich Brooks era. The coaching staff had touted Newton as a challenger for the starting job when he signed, but once practices began the word was that Newton wasn't ready to play as a true freshman.
Then when Mike Hartline went down with a knee injury at South Carolina, Newton was somewhat surprisingly thrown into the starter's role the next week at Auburn. And after three games, the results have been mixed.
Newton showed a surprising amount of poise for a rookie making his first start on the road in the Southeastern Conference, contributing a touchdown run in UK's big win over the Tigers. He didn't play a big role in a 36-13 win over Louisiana-Monroe the following week, and his performance in Kentucky's 31-24 loss to Mississippi State was the typical glass-half-full/glass-half-empty game of a rookie quarterback.
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Newton showed the ability to be a playmaker in the clutch, coming through on several big third-down conversions. He hit freshman LaRod King for 18 yards on third-and-8 in the first quarter and added an 8-yard run on third-and-4 in the second quarter.
Then, on UK's final drive with the Cats trailing 31-24, he converted a trio of third-and-longs, connecting with Chris Matthews for 14 yards on third-and-13, King for 13 yards on third-and-6, and Matthews again for 17 on another third-and-6.
But Newton also had his rough spots. He failed to spot Randall Cobb wide open downfield on a pass play and threw a wounded duck to Matthews instead. And on the series before the last drive, he threw an ill-advised pass under pressure that was picked off by Jamar Chaney at the MSU 9.
Brooks said it would be unfair to pin the Mississippi State loss on the freshman quarterback.
"I think he's done a pretty good job," Brooks said. "He's made some very good plays. Yes, he's made some rookie mistakes, but a lot of those veterans made a lot of mistakes, too. There shouldn't be anybody on our team pointing fingers at anybody else right now because we've got enough blame to go around, including the guy standing at the podium right here."
Newton was hard on himself talking to reporters after the game, but he seemed in pretty good spirits during practice this week.
"Looking at it, I didn't play as bad as I thought," Newton said. "I think it's probably all-around the best I've played since I've gotten in. Obviously, there's a lot of things to correct and a lot of decisions that shouldn't have been made. It wasn't terrible, but there's still a lot of work to do. Some of the mistakes that you make being a quarterback overshadow some of the plays that you make. Any time you can make long third-down conversions and keep your team on the field it helps your confidence."
In addition to dealing with the pressures on the field, Newton has had to try to win over a locker room filled with many veterans who were loyal to Will Fidler, a popular fourth-year junior who won the backup job in fall camp only to be surpassed by Newton after Hartline's injury. Fidler played in the South Carolina, Auburn and Louisiana-Monroe games, but he didn't get off the sideline against Mississippi State.
"It can be an issue," UK head coach for offense Joker Phillips admitted. "When a guy's been around here a long time, and a young freshman comes in here ... . Will's been out with a lot of these guys and hung out with them and been in workouts, and Morgan hasn't been through many of them. He's having to gain trust of the team. But if you are an athlete that understands this game, a guy like (Newton) should've gained your trust Saturday with the way he battled. All these guys have to understand how they were as freshmen and see the pressure that's on him."
Newton said he's just trying to fit in and do his job while at the same time not step on too many toes.
"I'm a rookie," Newton said. "There's obviously a little bit of pressure to get things down. I'm trying to step up and be a leader. But it's not just me out there. I've got Randall (Cobb), Jorge (Gonzalez), the entire offensive line, seniors that have been around. So there's not too much pressure."
UK sophomore right guard Stuart Hines said the team is solidly behind Newton.
"I trust him," Hines said. "He's going to be a great player. I know he's got the ability. He can run. He can throw. He's just young right now, and he's learning. You can't blame him for that. He wasn't expected to get thrown into the fire. I think he's coming along well. We've just got to let him know that we're behind him and get his back. He comes into the huddle and he's confident, he's like, come on guys, let's get fired up, let's go. He's done a really good job with that. He's a freshman, but he's being really mature about everything. You'd think he's been here a year or two already."
Newton appears to have both an ally and a sounding board in Cobb, who went through similar struggles as a freshman last fall after taking over the offense midway through the season.
"He's a competitor," Cobb said. "He's got a long way to go, but the one thing I respect him for is he's always battling. When we're in (the) Wildcat (formation), he's out there blocking a corner. That's the kind of guy you want beside you when you go to war."
Newton had similar high praise for Cobb.
"Being around Randall you kind of learn how things go on this campus," Newton said. "You learn to carry yourself on and off the field. You learn how to play and try to lead with the seniors out there. There's a lot you can learn from Randall. He's a playmaker and he's been a great leader for us."
While there may be struggles now, Phillips said the experience Newton is gaining will pay huge dividends down the road.
"He's further along than any freshman we've had here, and he would have been further along if he had more snaps," Phillips said. "Every rep he gets is big for the future of the program. You can see him grow every rep."
The flu bug several UK players have been fighting this week seems to have peaked. While a handful of players missed practice Wednesday, three players expected to play key roles in Saturday's game against Eastern Kentucky were back on the field: linebacker Micah Johnson, offensive lineman Christian Johnson and running back Alfonso Smith.
"Looks like we're mostly just having the 24-48 hour flu," Brooks said. "Hopefully that'll remain the case."