Hartline won't be easy to oust as QB

Among the many positives that came from Kentucky's victory over East Carolina a week ago in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, one is the most significant.

The quarterback situation at Kentucky — about as clear as a mud pie when the 2008 regular season ended — has now achieved clarity.

Mike Hartline is the man.

As he left the post-game news conference after the Wildcats' stirring 25-19 come-from-behind victory over East Carolina, Rich Brooks summed up the QB situation at UK this way.

After his solid play in the bowl, Hartline "has got to be our starting quarterback going into the spring," Brooks said.

The UK coach stopped short of saying that Randall Cobb — the multi-talented freshman who switched from receiver to supplant Hartline as Kentucky's starting QB in the season's ninth game — would return full-time to wideout in 2009.

It at least sounded that Brooks' thinking was moving in that direction.

"Even if he is not primarily a quarterback," the coach said of Cobb, "he would still take some snaps from center in our version of the Wildcat offense."

Next month, UK is expecting to sign two highly touted high school quarterbacks, Indiana Mr. Football Morgan Newton and Texas standout Ryan Mossakowski.

It is uncertain whether Mossakowski, coming off surgery for a severe shoulder injury, will be ready to play this coming fall.

Brooks said that "any new players at the position will have to compete with and try to beat out Mike Hartline in the fall."

My guess is that isn't going to be easy.

When UK starts its bid for a fourth straight bowl bid next fall, this is how I expect the quarterback situation to play out:

Hartline will be the Kentucky starter.

Cobb will return to receiver and assume a Percy Harvin-type role in the Cats' attack.

If Mossakowski is healthy, he and Newton will compete to be the backup QB.

If the Texan isn't 100 percent, I anticipate him redshirting to allow his shoulder to fully regain its strength.

That could leave Newton to be the Brian Brohm to Hartline's Stefan LeFors. That means, just as Bobby Petrino did with Brohm in his freshman year (2004) at Louisville, the UK coaches would give Newton a couple of series in the second quarter of each game.

For all the abuse he took as Kentucky's offense struggled mightily throughout this past season, Hartline's first year as (mostly) UK's starting QB bears a striking statistical resemblance to that of his immediate predecessor.

In 2008, Hartline threw for 1,666 yards, completed 55.3 percent of his passes and had nine touchdown throws to eight interceptions.

During his initial year (2005) as Kentucky's signal- caller, Andre Woodson threw for 1,644 yards, completed 57.7 percent of his passes and had six TD throws and six picks.

Woodson went on to become one of the best quarterbacks in UK history. Hartline has a long ways to go to get to that level.

The main question during the year for the product of Canton, Ohio, was arm strength. But he clearly seemed to have more velocity on his throws at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis. At 6-foot-6, 204 pounds, he has the frame to add more strength in the off-season.

Though Cobb went only 1-3 as a UK starting QB (Hartline went 6-3), if he devoted all his time to quarterback, I think he could be a winning, maybe even a standout, college signal-caller.

At 5-11, the big knock on him as a quarterback is height. Yet in recent years players such as Kansas' Todd Reesing (5-10), Missouri's Chase Daniel (6-1) and former U of L standout LeFors (6-foot) have shown that short people can thrive as college signal-callers.

However, Cobb figures to be more valuable to wideout-starved UK as a pass catcher. Besides, if he has NFL aspirations, that position is his best hope.

Imagine the chaos Cobb could create for opposing defensive coordinators if UK lined him up all over the field, getting him touches via the pass, on end-arounds and, yes, taking direct snaps.

Assuming they follow through and sign with the Cats, Newton and Mossakowski will be among the most popular players on campus before they ever play a down.

Immense recruiting hype does that for you.

But even the most talented true freshman is going to have a very difficult time beating out a veteran starting quarterback with bowl-winning experience.

Which is why Mike Hart line is almost certain to be under center when UK kicks off next season.

Based on what we saw in Memphis, my guess is it'll be real difficult to get him out of there by the time Kentucky finishes 2009, too.