This is the second in a series of posts examining how the personnel for the 2009 UK football season are shaping up.
As Kentucky football fans look anxiously ahead to the start of the 2009 season, the quarterback position, to most anyway, seems to be a big question mark.
Will Mike Hartline perform up to the standards set by previous UK signal-callers? Will one of the incoming freshman make the job his own? Will Randall Cobb's freakish ability leave the UK coaching staff no choice?
I may not have all the answers (or any answers for that matter), but we'll at least take a spring look at how the most important position on the gridiron may shake-out for the '09 season.
UK's 2008 Quarterback Numbers
Points Per Game -- 22.6
First Downs Passing -- 98
Passing Attempts -- 415
Passing Completions -- 227
Completion Percentage -- 54.7
Interceptions -- 13
Passing Touchdowns -- 11 (out of 36 scored)
Yards Gained Per Pass -- 5.4
Yards Gained Per Completion -- 9.8
Sacks -- 13 (88 yards lost)
Players lost to graduation: Zero
Returning players of note: Mike Hartline - 172-311 (55.3%), eight interceptions and nine touchdown passes in nine starts. He rushed for -9 yards: Randall Cobb - 52-99 (52.5%), five interceptions and two touchdown passes in four starts: Will Fidler - 3-4 (75.0%), zero interceptions and zero touchdown passes.
Possibly the most discussed position on the Kentucky football team, not only last season, but also this off-season, has been the quarterback spot. Incumbent starter Mike Hartline has been embattled and belittled almost since Day 1 of his tenure as UK's starting quarterback. But, with head coach Rich Brooks making it very clear that sophomore Randall Cobb will be concentrating on playing one of the wide-out positions, with the occasional dalliance as a QB out of the Wildcat Package (more on that later), the job is Hartline's to lose.
The 2008 football season saw a myriad of problems in UK's passing game. Hartline, only a sophomore who had never started a game at the collegiate level, found himself under-throwing receivers, over-throwing receivers, and throwing wide. To add to the offensive chaos often present, the fleet of extremely young Wildcat receivers were drop-prone to a disturbing degree.
Add in the fact that UK's top receiver, Dicky Lyons, played in only six games, and junior DeMoreo Ford was mostly ineffective before suffering a career-ending injury, and the young quarterback was obviously struggling with his confidence.
Also, Hartline wasn't allowed to throw the deep ball (for fear of being intercepted), much to the consternation of his receivers, which only caused the opposing secondary and linebackers to cheat-up on the short and medium range passes. Resulting in a pathetic yards per completion average of only 9.8.
All of these factors contributed to a moribund passing game.
This year, with Brooks and Phillips solidly behind Hartline as quarterback (at least to start the season), he will hopefully display a greater effectiveness at the all-important position.
UK's newly minted offensive head coach Joker Phillips hopes that Hartline is becoming more comfortable in his role:
"I think Mike has handled himself well this spring. I think what has helped is him knowing that it's his job. When we went through the bowl preparations, that's when you saw him improve a lot. He knew it was his show, and he played well in the bowl game. And he's had a pretty good spring. The ball has been coming out of his hands pretty well, and he's always been great managing the team."
Hartline's Liberty Bowl numbers seem to bear out Phillips' words -- 19-31 for 204 yards, with one pick and a touchdown pass. His 61.3% completion percentage was a full six-percentage points higher than his regular season numbers.
Phillips also brings up the oft-repeated refrain that Hartline is a good "game manager." Often that implies that Hartline's job is to NOT lose the game, instead of him making plays that enable his team to win. Hartline knows this, and responded:
"I'm starting to take it personally as my responsibility to not only come out and not lose, but to win the game as well. Making plays, not just doing what the coaches ask me to do. Exhaust all my options before I throw the ball away, or run the ball. Last fall, it was more about going through your progressions and getting rid of it. Right now, I feel like I'm coming into my own and becoming my own player, not just doing what I have to do to get by."
Phillips re-emphasizes his stance; that in order for Hartline to be effective he must feel good about himself, and confident in what he's doing on the field:
"Our whole spring has been to make sure he feels good about himself. We did that with Andre (Woodson) a couple of years ago. We wanted to make sure he felt comfortable with everything we're doing offensively. That's what we're doing with Mike also."
The Wildcat Package
Although Randall Cobb is firmly considered by Brooks to be a wide-receiver, the UK coach has decided to use the multi-talented sophomore at the quarterback spot in what has been dubbed "The Wildcat Package."
Cobb will line up at the QB spot, but unlike other receivers/running backs who have been used in this way, he won't be a lock to run with the ball. He presents the defense with two possibilities: He might run, then again he might pass the ball.
Brooks sounds optimistic and excited about the possibilities:
"I think it will give some teams some preparation problems. It will give teams a different look and some things to be concerned about, and it's also putting the ball in the hands of a guy who can do special things. We'll see how it works."
Try as I might, I can't fathom how such a play package wouldn't be effective, especially considering how demonstrably dangerous Randall Cobb has proved to be.
The Freshman Phenoms
The excitement generated by the signing of high school All-America quarterbacks Morgan Newton and Ryan Mossakowski is palpable within the Big Blue Nation. Kentucky football fans haven't been this jacked-up about any incoming freshman since Tim Couch inked with UK back in 1996. But, how much clock-time either of the two standouts receives in the immediate future, is very much up for debate.
But that fact doesn't preclude me from taking a look at the accolades and numbers of the two heralded recruits:
Morgan Newton -- 6-4, 220 lbs. Newton is rated a 4-star prospect by Scout. He was a Parade, SuperPrep, MaxPreps, and The Sporting News All-America. He was Indiana's Mr. Football, and Scout rated him the sixth best quarterback prospect in the nation.
Newton, in his senior year, threw for 1,938 yards and 22 touchdowns, and ran for 1,664 yards and 26 touchdowns. His junior year he threw for 1,885 yards and 25 touchdowns, and rushed for 753 yards and 11 touchdowns.
If you're counting at home; that's 84 total touchdowns over his last two years. Perhaps that's why he led Carmel High School to three straight Indiana state championship games.
Ryan Mossakowski -- 6-4, 201 lbs. Mossakowski is rated a 4-star recruit. He was a SuperPrep and PrepStar All-America, and he's rated one of the top-25 quarterback prospects in the nation. All of this after missing a significant portion of the season after tearing his labrum (in his shoulder) last year.
The Frisco, Texas native, in his final three years of high school, passed for 6,834 yards and 49 touchdowns, and rushed for 787 yards and 19 touchdowns.
As of yet, I make no predictions on how the quarterback battle will play out as the season progresses. Joker Phillips, though, seems to be allaying any fears that Mike Hartline may have about losing his job to one of the newcomers, at least early on:
"He knows how hard it is for a freshman. I would think he would have the feeling it would be tough for a freshman to come in here on opening day and take his job. We've got to find out if they can win the job, and he understands that. Deep in his mind, though, I bet he knows how hard it is for a freshman to come in here on opening day and be the guy."
Hartline will absolutely have to put up better numbers than he did last year, or one of the two phenoms (most likely Newton) will have the opportunity to take his job.
The coaches and fans will be looking for a smoother, more efficient offensive machine than we witnessed last year. Dropped passes aside, if there is no vertical passing game, and if his completion percentage isn't improved, then a change, at some point, will have to be made.
Phillips makes a good point, though: Winning with a freshman in the SEC is tough. But, if one is left with no other alternative ...
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!