NASHVILLE — Mike Hartline helped cement his status as Kentucky's starting quarterback in 2009 thanks to an MVP performance in last year's Liberty Bowl. A year later, Hartline will take some snaps as a backup to freshman Morgan Newton in the Music City Bowl.
But regardless of how Newton and/or Hartline perform against Clemson on Sunday, it will have minimal impact on who'll be the starter in 2010 or who'll take the first snap in the spring.
UK head coach for offense Joker Phillips said on Wednesday that it will be an open competition in spring practice among Newton, Hartline and redshirt freshman Ryan Mossakowski regardless of what happens in the Music City Bowl.
"We've got three quality guys there at quarterback, and I don't think we can say a guy wins it based on what happens in this game," Phillips said.
Hartline has an 8-6 record in 14 career starts. Newton, a true freshman who took over when Hartline went down with a knee injury, led the Wildcats to a 5-2 record down the stretch.
And the wild card is Mossakowski, a four-star recruit from Texas who redshirted following surgery last winter to repair a torn labrum.
"We've got to open it up and give Mossakowski a chance; we told him that it would be open, and we need to see what he can do," Phillips said.
Phillips said it's been hard to get a complete read on Mossakowski because he hasn't fully recovered from shoulder surgery. But Phillips and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders have been impressed with other elements of Mossakowski's game.
"Physically, he's lacking some things right now," Phillips said. "You're not sure if it's because of his shoulder or what, but he doesn't have the velocity that we think he had coming out of high school when he was healthy.
"But one of the things we've tried to watch with him is his eyes to make sure he's looking at the right places," Phillips said. "And he is. He's probably further along mentally than any other quarterback we've had here at this stage."
While Newton has shown poise in tough situations and was under center during big road wins at Auburn and Georgia, UK Coach Rich Brooks would still like to see more fine-tuning in the passing game. In Newton's five starts against BCS opponents, Kentucky has averaged a little more than 104 yards a game through the air.
"I'm still not pleased with the passing game," Brooks said. "Sometimes (Newton) throws strikes with great accuracy and, other times, it's the high ball and the slider. It isn't as consistent as it needs to be."
Newton acknowledged he's been inconsistent ("It's been rough at times; I'm just trying to continue to do better," he said.) He can also be his own worst critic, as when he took responsibility for his role in the Tennessee loss in the post-game press conference.
"That's just the way I've been raised," Newton said. "My family, we expect to be as close to perfection as we can be. And even though I'm a young guy, I realize I've got a lot of improvement to make. That's what I expect out of myself. The coaches have been on me, and I've been on myself just trying to get better."
And while a starting quarterback for 2010 might not emerge until fall camp, Newton said he believes a nice showing in the bowl game can give him a leg up, just as it did for Hartline last year.
"Absolutely," Newton said. "This is a big step for what's to come in 2010. I've just got to go out and put points on the board and, if I can do that, it will be a step in a positive direction."
Hartline's knee has responded well enough in bowl practices that he should play, but he's not putting any extra pressure on himself.
"The knee felt as good as it has since I got injured," he said. "It's great to feel healthy going into the game. It's a big game, but it doesn't play a huge role (in relation to the spring). I'm just getting back and, once my number is called (in the bowl game), I'll do the best I can."
Phillips' biggest challenge might be finding a way to squeeze in enough playing time for three quarterbacks in spring practice.
"It's going to be hard, but we've got to do it," he said. "We've got to find a way to get all three of them plenty of snaps so we can evaluate them and find out which one gives us the best chance to win."
It's not the ideal situation for Phillips.
"I'd rather have a guy who's been an All-American ready to come in and start the season," Phillips said. "And I mean a college All-American, not a high school All-American. But we don't. Where we're at, we've got to open it up and see what we have. We've got two guys that have won games around here; we've got another talented freshman. We've just got to get them out there and let them compete."