Joker Phillips may or may not name a starting quarterback by the end of spring, but one thing has become clear through the first part of Kentucky's spring practice: Experience matters.
Fifth-year senior-to-be Mike Hartline has been the steadiest of the QBs thus far and has pulled ahead of youngsters Morgan Newton and Ryan Mossakowski.
The Wildcats had their first major scrimmage of the spring Saturday, with all three quarterbacks taking snaps with the first-team offense. Hartline was the most effective, going 10-for-15 passing for 153 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. On the first series of the scrimmage, Hartline hooked up with Randall Cobb for a score on a catch-and-run slant on the right side, and later he threaded the needle perfectly to La'Rod King on a short TD pass in the end zone.
"Definitely Mike Hartline's playing better than the two young ones," Phillips said. "A lot of it has to do with game-ready snaps, and he's had a lot. He's played for two years around here and those two young ones haven't played as much."
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Newton and Mossakowski both had their moments. Newton took advantage of a blown coverage and hit Cobb for a TD on his first series and later hooked up with Gene McCaskill for a score. Mossakowksi floated a beautiful touchdown pass to Brian Adams on a fade.
The main difference between Hartline and the youngsters was turnovers. Hartline had zero, while Mossakowski had two interceptions and Newton one. In fairness, Mossakowski's first pick came when a pass deflected off Adams, and Newton's came when cornerback Anthony Mosley outfought King for a jump ball.
"I thought the two young ones did some good things too but they've got to protect the football," Phillips said. "That's the thing that a quarterback has to do is make sure we don't have any negative plays, and we had way too many."
Hartline said he feels close to the form he showed before suffering a knee injury against South Carolina last year, a game in which he helped UK establish a halftime lead and passed for 139 yards and a touchdown before going down.
As for the ongoing quarterback battle, Hartline said he's "happy with where he's at right now," and feels his experience has definitely made a difference. He seems comfortable with the offense, and he's also taken Newton and Mossakowski under his wing.
"I just planned on coming out the first couple of days and seeing how the knee feels, going as hard as I can and not holding back," he said. "It's going well. I'm doing the things I need to do, and I feel like I'm taking more of a leadership role. When you do those things, and are accountable, and make plays, it's easy to be a leader."
While the competition has been and will continue to be fierce, it also seems to be friendly. Newton and Mossakowski both say they've leaned on Hartline's knowledge and experience.
"You try to learn from a guy like Mike," Newton said. "He's been around here, he's seen Andre (Woodson) do it, and he's been in years of film with Coach (Randy) Sanders."
Hartline said he's just doing what Woodson did for him during his time as an understudy.
"Coach Sanders stresses to compete and battle for the starting position, but at the same time we're all here for each other, look out for each other, and want each other to do well," Hartline said. "I've been here too long and know things these young guys don't, and it's just wrong if I don't help them out."
Mossakowski is the only one of the three who hasn't seen game action, as he redshirted last year following shoulder surgery. He admits that has him a little behind the other two.
"It's tough, because they know the real game speeds and situations," Mossakowski said. "I just try and go in and watch film and picture myself in a game, just trying to get those emotions so when I do come out in situations like this, I can treat it almost as a game. When you do that in practice, next thing you know you just keep picking things up."
Mossakowski said his shoulder is fully healed, and he has shown his vast potential as a passer at times this spring.
"The shoulder's feeling great," he said. "It just feels good to get a half a season under your belt. Coming out, calling plays, making checks I feel a lot more comfortable now than what I did last fall. I feel like I'm passing the ball pretty well. I've got to keep working on things like making reads a little quicker, but all in all, I feel like I know the offense pretty good. Now I have to go out and compete."
Newton said consistency is the key for him to stake his claim for the job. Newton has a strong arm and, as he showed in Saturday's scrimmage, is the most dangerous of the three in the open field. He just needs to iron out the erratic throws that plague him at times.
"You just go out here and try to play. You try and make plays when they can be made and make good decisions. Any time you can avoid turnovers and put guys in position to make plays, that's the ultimate goal."
While Hartline has the early lead, Phillips said he doesn't know if he'll name a starter by the end of spring.
"If the separation is wide enough we could make a decision," Phillips said. "But if not, we'll continue it."