Mike Hartline knows he's not Andre Woodson. And most importantly, he knows that the Kentucky coaching staff won't expect him to be when the Cats line up to face Louisville on Sunday.
Hartline has taken one meaningful snap in a college game: a handoff to John Conner for a 4-yard gain against Tennessee last year while Woodson was shaken up and on the sideline for one play.
In all likelihood, Hartline will be doing a lot of handing off against the Cards, too, but UK offensive coordinator Joker Phillips said he has no trepidation with Hartline at the controls. Phillips said the key is putting Hartline in positions where he can have success.
"I feel good about him, I really do," Phillips said. "We've got to give him some help. We've got to give him help as coaches, and the players have to also. I don't think we'll be getting in drop-back mode all day with a young quarterback. We've got to establish the run and help him out."
Breaking down Hartline's strengths and weaknesses is difficult because he's played so little and UK's practices have been closed to the media. He's tall (6-foot-6), can move around a little bit and improved his passing in the latter stages of spring practice. Hartline struggled along with the rest of the offense in the team's first fall scrimmage, but the unit was more cohesive in the second scrimmage.
"Guys stepped up and protected him, and that allowed some of our receivers to get open and make plays," UK Coach Rich Brooks said. "When one part does its job, it's easier for the other parts to look good."
Hartline said he has tried to exude confidence in the huddle during practices so he can instill confidence in his teammates.
"I just try and be calm as I can," Hartline said. "I've told the guys that I know this is my first start, but I'm going to come out and be confident and not get rattled."
UK offensive lineman Zipp Duncan said Hartline has carried himself well in recent practices.
"We've got all the confidence in the world in him," Duncan said. "It will be a new experience for him, even as a young guy, he's telling us to run to the ball and get on the line, and every play he calls, he calls it confidently."
Phillips said Hartline won't have as much freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage as Woodson did. Hartline said he'd have no problem with a simplified game plan.
"I don't need to try and do too much," Hartline said. "I'm not trying to be Andre Woodson or the other guys Kentucky has had in the past. I don't have to try and make a play every time. We have other great athletes who can make plays. It might be third-and-seven or third-and-eight, and we might run the ball. And that's OK. With our offensive line and running backs, I may not have to always make a play on third down."
That doesn't mean the coaches will take the ball out of Hartline's hands, especially since Louisville will probably bring a safety up in run support.
"We're going to have to make some throws, now," Phillips said. "It's easy to stop the run if you get an extra hat down there in the box. If they try and get an extra hat down there in the box, we've got to throw the football."
Hartline seemed more comfortable with the short and intermediate passes in the spring, but Phillips said he can get the ball downfield when necessary. He added that most of UK's struggles in the downfield passing game this fall have been because of its inexperience at receiver.
"He can make all the throws," Phillips said. "I just don't think we're as good at running the deep routes as last year. I think he can throw the deep ball. We've just got to be able to get open and get over the top of some people."
Hartline doesn't have to be spectacular, but he realizes that if he plays a solid game without a lot of mistakes that it greatly increases Kentucky's chances.
"I'm definitely ready," Hartline said. "This is why I came here and this is what I want to do, hopefully for a long time. I'm confident in myself and our team that we can win this game. I'm not putting any predictions out there, but if we come out here, play our game and make adjustments, we can come out on top."
"He's prepared and practiced like a guy who it's very important to that he plays well," Brooks said. "And I believe that he will."
Starting lineup set
Brooks announced after Thursday's practice that senior Jess Beets will start at right guard ahead of sophomore Brad Durham and redshirt freshman Stuart Hines, and that junior E.J. Adams will start at wide receiver opposite Dicky Lyons Jr. Adams had been battling sophomore Kyrus Lanxter and a host of true freshmen for the position.
Also, senior free safety Marcus McClinton is expected to start after returning to practice this week from injury.