Mark Story: This could be the year Hartline takes leap

As Mike Hartline shouldered (far too much of) the blame for Kentucky's anemic offensive attack in 2008, one comparison was oft made in his defense.

In his first year as Kentucky starting quarterback as a redshirt sophomore in 2005, Andre Woodson threw for 1,644 yards while completing 57.7 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and six interceptions.

In his first year as Kentucky starting quarterback as a redshirt sophomore last fall, Hartline threw for 1,666 yards while completing 55.3 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Of course, in his junior year, Woodson took the proverbial giant leap forward (3,515 passing yards with 31 TD passes) and became one of the best quarterbacks in UK history.

Whether Hartline can maintain the Woodson comparison going forward — or come close — figures to go a long way toward determining whether UK can earn its fourth consecutive bowl trip.

At his weekly news conference previewing UK's season opener Saturday against Miami (Ohio) in Cincinnati's Paul Brown Stadium, Kentucky Coach Rich Brooks put "the improved play of Mike Hartline" high on his list of reasons why he believes the 2009 Wildcats will be better than last year's 7-6 team.

Any chance Hartline is on the verge of a Woodson-esque step up?

"The only way to judge that level of improvement is to play the games," Brooks said. "On the practice field, there is no question, we've seen tremendous improvement in Mike Hartline."

A year ago, the knock on the lanky 6-foot-6, 207-pound product of Canton, Ohio, was a lack of arm strength. The deep ball was all but AWOL from the Kentucky attack in 2008.

With UK expecting significantly better receiving play this season than it got from last year's overmatched kiddie corps, Hartline should have a chance to show whether he has enough wing to stretch the field.

"I think he had the arm strength last year, he just didn't have confidence in the guys he was throwing to," said Randall Cobb, the UK wideout. "This year, he has that confidence in the receivers, and you can tell the difference in his throws."

After Kentucky's first fall scrimmage, Hartline said his deep ball will be better because he has worked to improve something as simple as how he holds the football when he throws.

"I've got plenty of arm to make the throws that I need to make," Hartline said. "Sometimes I just grip (the ball) too hard or try to overthrow, and it comes out crazy. I'm just trying to relax, be confident and trust my guys."

For good and bad, Hartline went through almost everything in 2008 that a quarterback can experience.

In his first start, UK beat archrival Louisville on its home field. He threw two late TD passes that felled Arkansas.

Then there was the gutty Liberty Bowl performance, when Hartline played through the stomach flu (and repeated trips to the bathroom) to lead the Cats over East Carolina.

Conversely, Hartline got benched following UK's 63-5 drubbing at Florida. He did not initially handle the public relations aspect of losing the starting job with the poise expected of an SEC quarterback.

Still, if you survive them, it is from such ebbs and flows that one grows.

"Mike's got great grasp of the offense now," offensive tackle Zipp Duncan said. "He's really got command of the huddle."

A year ago, Hartline played with the specter of a highly touted freshman quarterback, Cobb, looming behind him. Eventually, the freshman claimed the starting job, only to get injured and allow Hartline another chance.

With massively hyped true freshmen Ryan Mossakowski and Morgan Newton entering the UK program this year, 2009 figured to bring more looking over the shoulder for Hartline.

But, so far, neither of the two freshmen has even claimed the backup QB spot. For the incumbent starting quarterback, that's probably a plus.

The book on Hartline last year was that he was a "manage the game" quarterback, meaning he wouldn't get you beat but didn't have the talent to make big plays and win games himself.

This year, we'll see whether that's right or whether "the game manager" has more to offer.

Says Brooks: "He's throwing the ball more accurately. He's throwing it deep more accurately. He's giving the receivers a chance to make plays on the ball and, amazingly, we've got receivers making some plays on the ball."

This time next year, if we're still comparing Hart line's career arc to Woodson's, chances are the 2009 UK football season will have turned out rather nicely.