The shadow of Andre Woodson will be lurking over Mike Hartline from the moment Hartline takes his first snap against Louisville.
But if anybody knows about life in the shadows, it's Mike Hartline.
Hartline is a strong bet to succeed Woodson as the University of Kentucky's starting quarterback. But growing up in Canton, Ohio, Hartline was often in the background while his older brother, Brian, was in the spotlight.
“My brother was kind of like the big superstar, and I was just the kid brother,” Hartline said. “From pee-wee ball to middle school to high school, he was the one that everybody wanted to watch play.”
Even now, when you mention the name Hartline, most college football followers will be able to make a quick reference to Brian, a standout receiver at Ohio State who caught 52 passes for 694 yards and six scores last season.
But finally the other Hartline will get his chance to make a name for himself. The dismissal of Curtis Pulley has made Mike the front-runner to be under center when the Wildcats travel to Louisville for the season opener on Aug. 31.
Nobody really knows for sure what to expect from Hartline. He's tall and rangy, standing 6-foot-6 and weighing a shade more than 200 pounds. While he's not as dangerous a runner as Pulley, he's more mobile than Woodson and was a track standout in high school. He threw six passes in mop-up duty behind Woodson last year and had a decent, but not great, spring.
Ready or not, the Mike Hartline era is set to begin.
“I'm getting a little more nervous every day, because I know each day, I'm one day closer to being in that game,” Hartline said.
Hartline's father, Dale, remembers watching pro football and playing games of catch on Sundays with his boys. He said his biggest problem with Mike was trying to get him to be serious.
“We were Cowboys fans, and at halftime, we'd go out in the backyard and throw it around,” Dale Hartline said. “I'd have Mike lined up on one side, and Brian on the other, and every time I threw Mike the ball, he'd just sit there and giggle.”
Brian is a year and a half older than Mike and was a grade ahead of him in school. By the time Brian was a sophomore quarterback at Glen Oak High, he was already a big-time prospect.
But slowly but surely, Mike was coming into his own. He had a 6-inch growth spurt in between his sophomore and junior years, and people were starting to take notice.
“It was after a track meet one day, and I was just kidding around with the boys,” Dale Hartline said. “So we were standing in the parking lot, and I said, ‘Last one's a rotten egg and took off. I hear feet coming up on me, so I look back, and I was sure that it was Brian. It was Mike.
“Another day after practice, I was talking to (Glen Oak head coach) Jack Rose. He looked at me and said, ‘In seven years he'll be in the NFL. So I start going on and on about Brian, and he stopped me and said, ‘No, I'm talking about Mike.'”
Midway through Brian's junior year, the offense was struggling, so Glen Oak moved Brian to receiver and inserted Mike, then a sophomore, at quarterback to start getting prepared for the following season. But Brian suffered a knee injury in the season opener and missed his entire senior year.
For the first time, Mike had to create his own identity.
“I was kind of on my own then,” Hartline said. “Usually I had Brian right there to guide me and give advice, and out there helping me. But when he got hurt, I had to become my own player.”
Brian went on to sign with Ohio State. Mike had a solid two seasons running the Glen Oak offense and was listed as a three-star prospect by Rivals.com. But an offer from Ohio State never came, and instead Hartline committed to UK.
“It just reached a point where I thought they needed to show a little more interest if they really wanted me,” Hartline said. “My brother was putting in a good word for me, and I would have loved to have gone and played with him, but you have to do what's best for you.”
Brian has developed into an All-Big Ten candidate and has played in two straight BCS Championship Games. And while he admits it would have been nice to play with Mike, he thinks things worked out for the best.
“He's good enough to play at Ohio State,” Brian said of his younger brother. “But I really think that it was a blessing in disguise at the time. He was able to go to Kentucky and get away from the whole brother-comparison thing. He's dealt with that his whole life. Now he's got the chance to make a name for himself.”
The Hartlines have learned to be creative travelers in order to see both of their sons play. Last year, Ohio State had several noon kickoffs while UK had several night games, so on several occasions the Hartlines were able to start off in Columbus, leave early, and get to Lexington to catch the tail end of UK's game.
On opening weekend this year, the Hartlines will travel to Marietta, Ga., on Friday to watch their youngest daughter, Jamie, play in a volleyball tournament. Then it's off to Columbus to watch Brian as Ohio State takes on Youngstown State on Saturday. They'll then head down to Louisville to watch Mike's first snap as UK's quarterback on Sunday.
Beyond the opener, Hartline's parents might have to split things up in order to catch both Brian and Mike this year because the schedules don't work as well together.
“We're both pumped because we haven't really seen Mike play,” Dale Hartline said. “We'll probably be fighting it out for Kentucky duty every week.”
Brian said he's advised his brother to follow the same blueprint that Ohio State quarterback Todd Boeckman used last year to successfully replace Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith.
“Make all the easy throws, don't turn it over too much, and rely on the great players around you,” Brian said. “That's basically what Todd did last year, and now you hear his name being mentioned for the Heisman. People might say, ‘Yeah, but Todd's at Ohio State,' but Mike's got some good players around him. They've got talent.”
UK offensive coordinator Joker Phillips said he hasn't made any changes to the offense as he transitions from Woodson to Hartline. And when it was suggested that he couldn't expect Hartline to run the offense like Woodson, Phillips quickly retorted.
“I do expect him to run it like Andre,” Phillips said. “We've got to put those expectations on him. You don't say that a kid can't do something. We're doing the exact same thing in practice that we were doing when Andre was here. We haven't tweaked our offense because we've got a new quarterback. We're running the same plays. We expect him to make all the throws, and so far he's done it. He's been as sharp as I've ever seen him the first few days of practice.”
Hartline's father was in Lexington on Friday to see how his son was progressing and was pleasantly surprised with what he saw.
“After the thing with Curtis went down, I could tell in his voice he was a little overwhelmed,” Hartline's father said. “And I'll admit, I was worried about him mentally and emotionally. So after practice, he walks over, and he seemed very calm and relaxed. I asked him, ‘Can you handle all of this? And he looked at me and said, ‘I'm ready.' I told him, ‘If it gets to be too much, let us know. He just looked at me and said, ‘Don't worry. It's all right.'
“And I had so many people come up to me after practice and say, ‘Don't worry, Mike will be just fine.' I've heard that a lot with Brian, but never with Mike. That made me feel better than anything I saw on the field.”