It's about time to man up and say it -- I never thought Mike Hartline would be an SEC quality quarterback. I was wrong.
I had a lot of company, no doubt about it. Many people that I know, and many people on this blog, never had much faith in Hartline. A whole lot of that lack of faith was justified by his inaccuracy on longer passes, his tendency to throw floaters that would drift over the heads of his receivers and into the waiting arms of defenders, or his tendency to lock on to primary receivers and telegraph his throws.
Throughout his career at Kentucky, Mike Hartline has been a lightning rod for negative commentary about the football team. Countless negative and even hostile comments have been directed his way on blogs and message boards, and Hartline himself added to his own misery with petulant comments after he was benched in favor of Randall Cobb two years ago, for which he later apologized.
Many of us, yours truly included, felt that although Hartline might be the best choice this year for the starter, it didn't look like a resounding vote of confidence when it took Joker Phillips almost the entire pre-season to finally name Mike Hartline as the man for the job. At the time, the fear was that Hartline was the best of a bad lot, but if this Mike Hartline was the measuring stick, either Newton or Mossakowski might wind up as Heisman candidates in a year or two.
Of course, Hartline is not doing this all by himself. Yes, he has radically improved his throws, particularly in the area of form. He now throws a tight spiral with nice zip, but virtually never throws the rocket shot that tends to bounce off the hands of receivers. His throws have been accurate and on time, for the most part, and he has very rarely thrown the ball into a crowd. In addition to that, Hartline nicely moves through his receiver progressions and when the line manages to give him enough time, almost always delivers, where in previous years, it seemed like he never could.
But the receiving corps this year has seriously upgraded itself, and that is a big contributor to Mike Hartline's amazing success so far. Randall Cobb is better than ever, Chris Matthews has emerged as a big-time threat, Jordan Aumiller and Tyler Robinson have provided additional targets from the tight end spot that have been missing for the last two years, and Derrick Locke has become one of the best pass-catching backs in the SEC. LaRod King has become a dangerous receiver and is tied with Randall Cobb for most catches for touchdowns. Even Matt Roark has begun to emerge as a legitimate target.
To prove my point, let's turn to the statistics (via ESPN):
|1||Mike Hartline, QB||UK||273||184||67.4||2144||7.9||42||17||4||8||151.0|
|2||Ryan Mallett, QB||ARK||215||145||67.4||2040||9.5||85||15||7||11||163.7|
|3||Greg McElroy, QB||ALA||194||137||70.6||1781||9.2||85||11||3||21||163.4|
|4||Aaron Murray, QB||UGA||193||121||62.7||1766||9.2||55||12||3||14||157.0|
|5||Stephen Garcia, QB||SCAR||172||124||72.1||1681||9.8||72||12||6||15||170.2|
|6||Cameron Newton, QB||AUB||138||90||65.2||1364||9.9||94||13||5||10||172.1|
|7||John Brantley, QB||FLA||208||129||62.0||1266||6.1||51||6||5||10||117.9|
|8||Jeremiah Masoli, QB||MISS||170||96||56.5||1260||7.4||70||10||6||5||131.1|
|9||Matt Simms, QB||TENN||176||100||56.8||1253||7.1||72||7||5||22||124.1|
|10||Larry Smith, QB||VAN||164||85||51.8||1005||6.1||65||5||4||16||108.5|
Yes, you read that right. Mike Hartline has moved ahead of Heisman candidate Ryan Mallet in passing yardage, touchdowns, and has 3 fewer picks.
Throughout this rise to excellence, Hartline has remained humble, kept his focus on the team, and has received almost no positive attention from the media, although that is now beginning to change, at least locally.
My biggest lament is that Kentucky's defense shows little inclination to give him even nodding support, although to be fair to the defense, they are very young and we all knew (or should have known) that the defensive side would be where UK would break down this year. If Kentucky could have managed even one or two stands in the red zone that forced field goal attempts instead of allowing touchdowns, it is quite likely the Wildcats would have won at least one and possibly two more games.
But this article isn't a critique of the defense, but praise of the emergence of Mike Hartline as a legitimate SEC star in his senior year. Yes, I said it -- star. Because when you lead a team in passing and have an SEC-leading 17 touchdowns at this point in the season, you are having an all-SEC kind of year.
Mike Hartline, no matter what he does, probably won't get the nod over Ryan Mallett for first-team SEC honors. The SEC coaches will find some excuse to elevate Mallett to that position, and it won't be all that hard considering the kind of season Kentucky is having so far.
With all that said, I think it's time for the Big Blue Nation to recognize Hartline's accomplishments to this point. The turnaround has been remarkable, and he now stacks up against almost any quarterback in the SEC for production and performance. He may never play a day of football in the NFL, but he is having himself a senior season to remember.