As the Kentucky football team prepares to rally around a new starting quarterback in Randall Cobb, former starter Mike Hartline is trying to adapt to his new role as a backup.
Hartline had started UK's previous eight games, but Coach Rich Brooks announced on Monday that Cobb would get his first career start Saturday at Mississippi State.
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Brooks said he made the change based on "production," and because he's hoping Cobb's running ability might get the offense off to a faster start. Hartline said Tuesday he understands why he lost his starting job, but that made Monday's demotion no easier to accept.
"It stinks," he said. "No one ever expects to win the starting job and then lose it because guys around him aren't performing the way they should. But it's best for the team and I'm a team player, and that's just the way it has to be."
While acknowledging that the offense has struggled in other areas besides quarterback, UK offensive coordinator Joker Phillips echoed Brooks' statements on Monday in saying the change was a matter of production.
"It's a little (based on other positions), but the bottom line is the production at that (quarterback) position, and we just felt like when Randall was in the game, he was just a little bit more productive than Mike at times," Phillips said. "We've got two quarterbacks we've proven we can win with in this league. Mike, as a starter, is 5-3. You're only as good as your last outing, and we weren't very good in his last outing, so we decided to make a change."
Cobb, who will be the first true freshman to start at quarterback since Tim Couch in 1996, seems to have the support of his teammates.
"He stepped up and really become one of our offensive leaders," said senior left tackle Garry Williams. "You kind of wish the older guys would step up and do it, but hey, if he's going to step up and do it, then let him."
Said senior linebacker Braxton Kelley "When he's been in the game, he's really been able to move the ball, and that's a start."
Phillips said Cobb doesn't have a grasp of UK's entire offensive package but is learning more every week.
"He's going to do a lot of things to make this football team better, and he's shown that the times he's been in there," Phillips said.
Kentucky needs one win in its final four games to qualify for a third straight bowl game, but Phillips said that didn't play a factor in the decision to start Cobb.
"We just felt like this was the time," Phillips said. "It has nothing do with the number of games left or sense of urgency to get to a bowl game.
"It's tough to make those decisions because you don't want to lose anyone. Mike's got a lot of football left ahead of him at Kentucky and you don't want to lose him. But also we had to make a change based on production."
Phillips noted that the coaching staff has evaluated the wide receiver position in the same manner. Junior E.J. Adams and freshman Gene McCaskill will get the start Saturday over freshmen Aaron Boyd, Eric Adeyemi and Matt Roark. McCaskill has eight catches for 79 yards, the third-highest total among UK's receivers behind Dicky Lyons Jr., who's out for the season, and Cobb, who's now the starting quarterback.
McCaskill "has made some big plays for us, and he'll get the start because of production," Phillips said. "It has nothing to do with somebody else. It has to do with him being productive."
Middle linebacker Micah Johnson participated in Tuesday's practice, and Brooks said he'll see how Johnson does on Wednesday before evaluating his playing status for Mississippi State. Brooks had listed Johnson as doubtful on Monday.