A veteran starter, Hartline needs to work on finishing

Mike Hartline has won this game before.

He won it in 2008 when fellow competitor Curtis Pulley was tossed from the squad at the start of practice.

He won it last year, after the staff decided the team was best served with Randall Cobb as an all-purpose weapon, and true freshmen Morgan Newton and Ryan Mossakowski weren't quite ready for prime time.

So it was no real shock Monday when UK head coach Joker Phillips announced that for the third straight year the veteran Hartline had won the competition to be the team's starting quarterback.

Next question: Will this be the first year the senior from Canton, Ohio, ends the year as the Wildcats starter?

Two years ago, after a 63-5 drubbing at eventual national champ Florida, the Kentucky coaches pulled a signal-caller switch and shifted the athletic Cobb into the starting spot for the regular season's final four games.

Had not Cobb injured his knee in the Tennessee finale, he, not Hartline, would have probably started the team's Liberty Bowl win over East Carolina that season.

Then the fifth game last season, at South Carolina, after playing arguably the most productive half of his college career, Hartline suffered a knee injury that for all intents and purposes ended his junior season. He played in just one more game, that five weeks later, before being told to call it a campaign.

Newton took over and guided UK to a 5-2 record before the Cats' loss to Clemson in the Music City Bowl, in what was Rich Brooks' final game as a college head coach. Phillips succeeded Brooks. Many thought Newton had succeeded Hartline. For good. Many were wrong.

"I've been through it all," Hartline said Monday after being dubbed No. 1.

He has been through the criticism and the competition. He has been fairly knocked for his immature comments after losing the starting job his sophomore season. And he was unfairly criticized for his performances against Florida and Alabama a year ago. Word to the wise, what the Gators and Tide did to Hartline — combined 30-for-59 for 253 yards with two touchdowns and five interceptions — they did to most every other college quarterback.

But in another sense, Hartline hasn't been through it all, not the entire season anyway. He was a young quarterback when he lost his starting spot in 2008. He lost it through no fault of his own last year, thanks to injury. In the meantime, his Wildcat QB rivals have improved enough to carry this year's competition through 16 practices.

"We've got three guys we can win with," said Phillips on Monday.

Maybe coach-speak, maybe not. Newton has won. And Phillips revealed that Mossakowski has made the most camp improvement of the trio. Monday's real surprise came when the head coach said Newton and Mossakowski continue competing for the backup job.

From what we saw in the spring game — fall practices have been closed to media and public — Mossakowski just looks like a quarterback. He has that demeanor, those mannerisms. Phillips said the redshirt freshman's arm strength has improved since undergoing shoulder surgery last year. The Texan has earned consideration.

But Hartline earned the first snap. He knows what to do, and what not to do. Phillips admitted Monday the fifth-year senior committed the fewest "blunders" this fall, a significant factor. Hartline is from a football area, Canton, and a football family — brother, Brian, is a wide receiver with the Miami Dolphins. He wants to succeed.

"Being that this is my last season, I pushed really hard," Hartline said Monday. "I've done great things in the off-season, especially in the weight room and the film room, working with these guys. We just have a good connection now."

To keep that connection going right on through to the end of the season, however, he has to win a few more.