Man, I really didn’t want to write a Mike Hartline post. There is, perhaps, no hotter debate right now on the UK front than the one raging over who should be taking snaps from Jorge Gonzalez’ sizable loins and it was one that I wanted to stay clear of. But, with mainstream media sites now offering a poll question on whether or not Hartline should start (I hope that they get the same hell that we did) and with Hartline saying Tuesday that the coaches graded him out at 86% for his three interception performance against Alabama (no word on what the curve was for this test), the Hartline debate again jumps to the forefront. And, UK football fans couldn’t be more fired up about it.
Obviously, this debate had divided it in two passionate factions. On one end, you have the few Mike Hartline supporters left saying that his performance against the two best defenses in the country in successive weeks should not be the determing factor on his ability to lead the team and, on the other, the anti-Hartline contingent has latched on to the “anyone but Mike” chorus. While both groups will argue the merits of their position, there is no denying that the production UK is getting at quarterback is subpar at the moment. Through the first five weeks of the season (four games for the Cats) Hartline’s efforts land him in the bottom three of nearly every passing statistical category in the SEC and completing barely 50% of his passes for only 250 yards with two touchdowns and five interceptions in his last two contests for a QB Rating of 38 is clearly not going to get it done. The enthusiasm he brought into this season after being the MVP of the Liberty Bowl and having a strong camp translated to an efficient and pretty strong performance against Miami of Ohio and a pretty decent showing in his second consecutive win over Louisville. But, in a matter of two weeks, the momentum disappeared and Hartline looks as rattled and frustrated as ever – something very troubling for a quarterback who has shown a history of a fragile psyche.
But, with that being said, for those asking for change, the question now becomes a matter of “If not Hartline, then who?” when it comes to the quarterback snaps. The problem is, of course, that Hartline is probably the best option to return UK to their fourth consecutive bowl appearance this season. Randall Cobb, despite his success out of the Wildcat formation in limited reps this season and with his encouraging performances from a year ago, seems to be out of the question due to his success as UK’s only consistent threat at wide receiver. Plus, earlier this week, Cobb endorsed Hartline as the best quarterback option for the team and encouraged people to keep faith in him. With Cobb out of the picture, then the eyes would have to turn to Will Fidler, Hartline’s backup on the depth chart. With so little known about Fidler, Cats fans have been saying “How can he be worse than Hartline?” and the intrigue of the unkown has captivated some. But, like all unknown players, you would have to defer to the ones who don’t have him as a mystery – the coaches. To this point, Rich Brooks and his staff have been reluctant to turn the reins over to the junior from Henderson and his nine career passes. Despite his strong performance in a winning effort against Hartline in the Blue-White game, the staff does not seem to have that confidence in Fidler, which is troubling….and, of course, leads us to a pair of highly recruited freshmen.
Rich Brooks has made it clear from day one that his intent with both Ryan Mossakowski and Morgan Newton was to allow them to redshirt. Mossakowski’s situation was understandable as he recovered from shoulder surgery and, as a more pro-style quarterback, faced a tougher learning curve than the mobile Newton. With Newton, though, UK fans thought they had a legitimate shot at an instant contributor and many, including myself, had him penciled in as taking snaps at least part time by the Auburn game. But, it seems Brooks remains as adamant as ever at keeping Newton under wraps as well. Whether right or wrong, it’s apparent that, at this point, seeing Morgan Newton take a snap and blow his redshirt would likely signal a give-up by the coaching staff on their post-season hopes and an offical statement of “there’s always next year”. No matter how much you’re rooting to see Newton on the field, it’s clear that it would take some seriously troubling circumstances for it to happen.
So, like Axl Rose so eloquently stated on a classic Steve Beisner jam, where do we go now? Well, for better or worse, folks, it looks like this is Mike Hartline’s ship to stear for the remainder of the season. Given this assumption, it means that there is now a Claude Bassett sized burden on the coaches to put Hartline in position to succeed. Personally, I think that in order for Hartline to see the success that’s going to breed Wildcat victories, the coaching staff needs to make some changes to the offensive game plan. First of all, that means more Wildcat formations with Randall Cobb under center. Kentucky needs to not go overboard with running Cobb out under center and lose the novelty and surprise aspect of the formation, but to shelf it as completely as they have the past few weeks would be a recipe for certain disaster. Also, they need to do a better job of keeping Hartline from being forced to pass when the whole stadium knows it’s coming. For UK, this means avoiding the third and longs that have become more frequent than Matt Jones live blogs. I’m not certain exactly how you do that (I’m barely a writer, definitely not a coach) but I’d think that passing only on third down after two straight runs up the middle could be a good start. What’s the harm in throwing it on first down? After all, UK has done a pretty good job of pass protection this year. Finally, and I know I’m in the minority on this, I actually have confidence in Mike Hartline’s deep ball. Whether it goes for a touchdown or whether it’s caught out of bounds or thrown 20 yards over the receiver’s head, it at least keeps the defense honest. Let him chuck one up there. It opens up the running game and makes it a little softer for the short passes.
But, regardless of how they attack the gameplan, it’s obvious that Mike Hartline will probably always be Mike Hartline. He won’t be Andre Woodson or Jared Lorenzen and he certainly won’t be Tim Couch. But, if the UK coaching staff is going to continue to put their confidence in him during press conferences, then they need to put confidence in him on the field. One of the things we’ve learned about Hartline over the past season and a half is that his confidence is the key to keeping the UK offense in the game. Watching him come back after the three interceptions and take control of the huddle and deliver a deep pass to Randall Cobb was nice, but Hartline’s shown that he can fold more often than not when things start to spiral out of his favor. By basically saying that it’s Hartline or bust, the pressure has really ramped up on Joker Phillips, Randy Sanders and Rich Brooks. Hopefully a lesser (although still very good) opponent this week will finally show us some of this off-season improvement that gave the coaches so much hope to begin with. I think it would make everyone sleep a little easier.
Now, with that rambling out of the way, here are a couple of quick notes…
– Not all UK football news is troubling as former Clemson coach Tommy Bowden picked the Cats to upset the Gamecocks tonight on ESPNU. I take that as a great sign because no one has ever accused a Bowden of being crazy. Never. UPDATE: I have no idea who it was now. I was half-asleep and just caught the end of it. Some people are saying it might be Tommy Tuberville, which I wouldn’t argue with. But, it was definitely on ESPNU. Maybe.
– Also, Rivals reported that four-star Ryan Boatright said UK came to visit him at his school on Tuesday. Boatright, who originally committed to Southern Cal back in 2007 as an eighth grader, now ranks as Rivals’ 69th best player in the class of 2011. The 5’10 combo guard was named as a standout player at the Mac Irvin Back to School Jam by ESPN last month along with UK recruit Wayne Blackshear and is also considering Florida State, Kansas State, DePaul and Miami.
– Later this morning, Coach Cal will speak at the Wildcat Kickoff Luncheon in Louisville, hosted by the Louisville chapter of the UK Alumni Assocation. The event starts at 10:30 and Matt will be tweeting all of the Coach Cal goodness to those of you who are signed up to follow our Twitter account. If you haven’t signed up yet, you can follow all of the happenings on the KSR Twitter account here.
– I’ve never been secretive about my love for baseball, but even the most anti-baseball person has to love the story of the Minnesota Twins. Down seven games entering the final month, the Twins went 17-4 and then clinched their playoff berth in a 12-inning come-from-behind tiebreaker game. A great game and a great story.
– And, in a late breaking story, it appears that while neglecting my website duties and trying to spend time with the family tonight, a nerd fight of moderate size has broken out. Just remember, if you are going to nerd fight, then do it properly. You don’t want to be “that guy” not obeying the rules.
Stay tuned throughout the day as we continue to get you prepared for yet another Cats football matchup with a ranked team and we fuel the Coach Calipari sports boner with all the recruiting info and basketball notes presented in a ridiculous manner. See you in a few…