Kentucky quarterback Mike Hartline is trying to get his groove back after missing the past four games with a knee injury.
Just how much of that groove he gets back in practice this week will determine how much Hartline plays in Saturday's pivotal contest at Vanderbilt.
Freshman Morgan Newton has started in Hartline's absence, but UK Coach Rich Brooks indicated that Hartline might play and possibly start if he proves he's healthy enough. Hartline suffered a complete tear of the medial collateral ligament from the femur, along with a slight tear of the posterior cruciate ligament and a small cartilage tear, during UK's 28-26 loss at South Carolina on Oct. 10. The MCL has basically healed; now Hartline has to play through the small cartilage tear.
While Brooks and head coach for offense Joker Phillips both said Hartline was a little rusty during Tuesday's practice, the key will be how Hartline's knee responds after practicing full-tilt.
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Hartline said planting and throwing haven't been a problem. The biggest issues have been with running, rolling out and throwing on the run. Hartline is wearing a brace that he says is somewhat restrictive.
"It's just something I've got to get used to," Hartline said after Tuesday's practice. "This is the most activity I've had since I got injured. It gets sore after you work out. It's just about how much pain I can take. I want to play, but we'll know what's best for the team and for myself. If I'm not absolutely confident that I can play at least a few series, I won't play."
Brooks seemed to second that, saying he won't force Hartline back into the lineup if he's not ready physically.
"I'm certainly not going to put Hartline out there if he can't get out of his own way, let alone pull it down and run it if he has to," Brooks said. "He's going to have to be able to throw the ball accurately and manage the offense, hand off, sprint out, do the things that our offense is going to require him to do without hobbling around and without really favoring his knee."
The quarterback situation presents Brooks and the Kentucky staff with an interesting dilemma. Hartline was just starting to come into his own during the South Carolina game, and the passing game was certainly crisper when he was in the lineup.
But after Hartline got hurt, the staff pulled the redshirt off Newton, and the four-star recruit looks as though he's starting to get a better feel for the offense.
Brooks spoke highly of Newton's performance in UK's 37-12 win over Eastern Kentucky on Saturday and said the talented freshman has made the most of his rookie season.
"It's all a process," Brooks said. "And whatever happens the rest of the year, he has advanced his progression a great deal for the future."
Brooks said he doesn't think Newton will suffer any ill effects from the possibility of Hartline starting and said Newton still needs to prepare like he'll be No. 1.
"I don't think it'll do anything to his confidence at all," Brooks said. "He'd better go into practice like he's going to do the same thing he's done for four straight weeks and that's start, because we never know whether Hartline will be able to get through the week of practice, and the other thing we don't know if he gets in the game it could be one hit and he'd be out."
Phillips said the bottom line is who gives the team the best chance to win. And with the Cats needing this game to qualify for bowl eligibility for a fourth straight season, if the starter's not moving the offense, the backup will get a chance.
"It's got to be a feel thing," Phillips said. "If we get stagnant, we've got to bring somebody else in. We feel like the other guy, whoever it may be, has given us a chance to win some games, too. You just try to give it about three series to see how things are going."