By all accounts, Mike Hartline was a little gun-shy last season. Instead of taking a chance on a deep ball, he'd play it safe and throw underneath. Instead of trying to zip a pass into a tight space a few yards down field, he'd be more inclined to dump the ball off to a running back in the flat.
That was the old Mike Hartline. Through two games, the 2010 version of Hartline has been a gunslinger, firing passes down field on a regular basis. The 6-foot-6 senior already has five completions of 20 yards or longer in two games.
Much of that is due to the improved level of trust between Hartline and his receivers. A group that was green and untested last year has matured into a reliable set of playmakers. It doesn't hurt that Chris Matthews (6-6), Matt Roark (6-6) and La'Rod King (6-4) are all big targets who can use their size to out-leap defenders for downfield jump balls.
"When you are 6-4, 6-5 and you have a 5-8 defensive back on you, that's open," UK Coach Joker Phillips said. We expect Chris to go up and take it. We expect La'Rod to go up and take it. If you have a small guy versus a big guy, we expect those guys to go up and take the ball. It's a rebound. We ought to be able to outrebound a 5-8 guy every time."
Hartline was hesitant at times to try to take advantage of his receivers' size in 2009, however, and the receivers admitted a lot of it was because they didn't hold up their end of the deal.
"The past two years have been kind of rough for him because he didn't have the playmakers that he really needed," King said.
"He's throwing balls that he would never throw last year," Matthews said. "I remember in the South Carolina game we had a lot of chances to go deep, and he didn't trust us. We were all young. We basically just got thrown in there. Now that we have a year under our belts, he trusts us more to go downfield."
Hartline said the trust level between him and his receivers began to develop in spring practice and continued to carry over. It's similar to the 2007 offense when Andre Woodson would throw the ball up and let Keenan Burton and Steve Johnson work their magic.
"It's all based on how hard we've worked this off-season and the whole maturity process; this is what comes with it," Hartline said. "They've proven they want the ball, and they've proven they can make plays, so there's no reason for me not to throw the ball up there and let them go get it. Those guys have so much athleticism and can do so many things. If you're that type of guy, it's easier for quarterbacks to make completions."
Phillips said Hartline has as much command of the ball as any quarterback he's been around. In the second quarter Saturday, Hartline hit Randall Cobb for a 40-yard gain that would have been a touchdown had Hartline put a little more air under the ball. In the third quarter, Hartline found an open Cobb in stride for a 35-yard TD.
"It was a perfect throw as far as how much air and distance he put on it," Phillips said. "I think that was probably the best throw I've seen around here in a long time."
The receivers say new assistant coach Tee Martin has done wonders for their confidence, and King said Cobb challenged the group in the pre-season. Now they have competitions in practice and in the film room to see who catches the most balls and best recognizes what coverages the defenses are in.
Just a year after being an afterthought at times, the UK receivers are feeling pretty good about themselves.
"We think we can come out and score on anybody that comes out there, from Western Kentucky all the way up to Florida and Alabama," Matthews said. "We're not scared of anybody that comes out there. We have this thing called 'CBS' — it stands for 'Can't Be Stopped,' and we're taking that to heart."
As good as the passing game has looked and as confident as the receivers are, the Cats know things will get tougher. After Akron this week, UK travels to Florida and Mississippi before coming home for a three-game home stand that includes Auburn, South Carolina and Georgia.
"We have that swagger," King said. "We showed that we can come out and make big plays on Louisville and Western, but that's Louisville and Western, honestly. We're not in the SEC yet, and that will be the big test. But we've got to worry about Akron this week."
Roark, McDermott captains vs. Akron
Junior receiver Matt Roark and junior defensive tackle Luke McDermott have been named captains for the Akron game, joining permanent game captains Randall Cobb and DeQuin Evans.