There's a first time for everything for a new quarterback. First pass. First touchdown. First interception. First win.
Kentucky's Mike Hartline is preparing for another rite of passage Saturday: First start in a Southeastern Conference road game.
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Hartline's predecessors say it's an experience they'll never forget — no matter how much they'd like to.
Hartline's coaches say he's uniquely suited for Saturday's visit to Tuscaloosa to play second-ranked Alabama.
And Hartline himself says he's ready to roll.
"There are always nerves before a big game, but I have to stay calm and composed and just play my game," he said. "If I can do that, the rest of the team will follow my lead and that will put us in better position to have a chance to win the game."
Life on the SEC road
Tim Couch made his first SEC road start as a true freshman in 1996. The Cats were buried in a 65-0 avalanche at the hands of Florida.
Jared Lorenzen's first start also came in the Swamp in 2000. While Lorenzen and the UK offense had some success, they lost a 59-31 shootout.
Shane Boyd and the Cats were pounded 42-6 at South Carolina in Boyd's first start the next season. And in 2004, a young redshirt freshman named Andre Woodson took a 42-10 beating at the hands of Auburn.
Hartline will try to avoid a similar fate Saturday.
UK Coach Rich Brooks and offensive coordinator Joker Phillips both expressed confidence that Hartline will be up to the challenge of being a visitor in an SEC stadium for the first time. Hartline did win his only previous road start, 27-2 over Louisville, in the season opener.
"His first road start was in a tough environment at Louisville, and I thought he handled that well," Brooks said. "There will be much more volume and much more animosity at Alabama, but he's progressed to the point to where I feel like he'll handle that really well.
"He's handled almost everything thrown at him to this point."
Phillips also expressed confidence in Hartline's readiness.
"I'm not worried about Mike," Phillips said. "I'm worried about getting those young receivers lined up and headed in the right direction and them making plays for Mike."
The 12th man
With more than 92,000 expected to be in attendance, crowd noise will be a factor Saturday.
With Hartline a first-year starter and a cast of inexperienced receivers, communication could be an issue. The Wildcats have practiced with simulated crowd noise for much of the week.
"You just have to hone in a little more and double- and triple-check at the line of scrimmage that everybody hears the calls," Hartline said. "It definitely helps with the sound (in practice), making it loud and making it a real game-time situation."
The offense should be helped by the fact that Phillips has simplified the hand signals.
"We were trying to do (the signals) really, really quick so the defense couldn't see them, but we've got to make sure that we definitely see them," Phillips said. "Sometimes they happen so fast the receivers aren't paying attention. (Hartline) has to hold the signals a little bit longer, and then we've got to echo them out to the outside receivers. It's been better, but we've got to definitely be on point this week."
'A much better situation'
Facing a Florida team that would eventually win the national championship, the Wildcats were embarrassed in the 1996 game that saw Couch, a 6-foot-4 gunslinger, spend much of his time running the option.
Couch, now a TV analyst for UK games, said Hartline is in a better position to succeed than he was. For one, he has a better team around him. Secondly, Couch knows that UK offensive coordinator Joker Phillips will put Hartline in a position to succeed, a luxury Couch didn't have in '96.
"It was horrible," Couch recalled earlier this week. "We were a bad football team playing a great Florida team, and I was running the option. I was confident in myself and my abilities, but we had no chance. Kentucky's playing a great team in Alabama, too, but with their defense and with Joker calling the plays Mike's in a much better situation than I was."
The week after the 65-0 loss, Couch traveled to Alabama but didn't play because of what then-coach Bill Curry termed a shoulder injury. Couch, however, spent the whole game throwing on the sideline.
"That was a great trip as far as seeing Alabama and all the tradition and history," Couch said. "I really wanted to get in the game, but you know, I had that 'supposed' injury."
Lorenzen's trip to the Swamp in 2000 went a little better, as the Wildcats compiled more than 500 yards of offense with the big lefty throwing for 363 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for another score.
"I remember the game extremely well; it's something you never completely forgot," Lorenzen said. "Of course, there were nerves. It was hot. It was loud. But I was young enough to where I really didn't realize the magnitude of it all."
The Cats finished 2-9 that year, but that team featured Lorenzen, Marlon McCree, Eric Kelly, Derek Abney, Quentin McCord, Artose Pinner, Chris Demaree, Willie Gary, Otis Grigsby, and Dewayne Robertson, all of whom were either drafted or played in the NFL.
"We were a lot better than our record," Lorenzen said. "We were confident, and we went in there thinking we had a shot. We didn't win, but we put more points than teams were accustomed to going in there."
Couch said it would help Hartline to have some early success in the passing game.
"Completions always help you get settled," Couch said. "Something like a screen pass early to get you going, maybe some short easy passes. I'm sure Mike will be nervous, but if he can just take care of the ball, distribute the ball and give his playmakers an opportunity to make plays, he'll be fine."