Hartline's the guy for now

John Clay
John Clay

That quarterback who was the No. 1 pick in Saturday's NFL Draft — Matt Stafford — the one that signed a $78 million contract. Remember him?

He played here three years ago. He was quarterback for the Georgia Bulldogs. He threw an interception going off his own goal line and one at UK's goal line.

Kentucky won that day.

Matt Stafford was a true freshman.

"Last time we beat Georgia ... he threw four picks," Joker Phillips, UK's head coach for offense, remembered Saturday. "(Florida quarterback) C.J. Leak, first time he started, he threw three picks. We had a chance to beat them. They're still freshmen."

Point being: Morgan Newton is expected to be very good. Ryan Mossakowski is expected to be very good. But when the two gemstone quarterbacks of Kentucky football's 2009 recruiting class arrive on campus in the fall, both will still be freshmen. True freshmen.

Mike Hartline will be a junior.

"We've got to win with Mike Hartline," said Phillips of the Cats' returning starter. "That's what we've got to be thinking right now."

Some of the estimated 20,220 at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday for the annual Blue-White Spring Game might have departed thinking otherwise. He completed 17 of 33 passes for 208 yards and two scores, with two interceptions. His team lost 28-23.

Hartline's start was slow. His deep balls left something to be desired. His demeanor wasn't always what Phillips wanted, especially not from a quarterback who started nine games a year ago, including the Liberty Bowl win over East Carolina.

"We've got to make sure that Mike's OK, because his body language sometimes wasn't exuding that he was having confidence and having fun," Phillips said. "We've got to change his body language, and he's got to sell every play we throw at him like it's going to be a big play."

Hartline did bounce back. Down 21-0, he rallied the White to within five points at game's end.

"After what I thought was a shaky start, I thought he did some very good things," said Coach Rich Brooks.

Still, afterward, the quarterback buzz wasn't Hartline, but his back-up, a near afterthought that had been Will Fidler. The little-used junior opened red-hot, hitting six of his first eight passes for 86 yards and a touchdown. He cooled considerably after that, but the impression was made.

"I thought he clearly closed the gap," said Brooks. "And there was a gap."

And this summer, UK fans won't be talking Hartline or Fidler as much as they'll be talking Newton and Mossakowski.

"If it looks like they do have the ability to be a No. 2 or a No. 1 guy, then it may go all the way up to the game," said Randy Sanders, the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. "I remember one year at Tennessee when (Erik) Ainge and (Brent) Schaeffer were there, I told the two guys we had, sorry these two guys are going to get all the work from now on. Because I thought they had the chance to be the starter."

Don't expect a replay of that this fall. The guess here is come Sept. 5 at Paul Brown Stadium, Hartline will be the starter, with one of the heralded freshmen as his backup. How long the order stays that way may depend more on the returning veteran than the talented newcomers. He's the junior. They're the freshmen.

"I know we can win with Mike," said Phillips. "We won six games last year."

Said Brooks of Saturday, "I thought (Mike) showed what kind of competitor he is."

And there's more competition to come.