"For us to have success, we have to throw the football. We want to throw the football. I'm pleased with the way Morgan (Newton) has progressed. He now understands the offense and changes protections, and I like the way he's handling himself in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage."
Kentucky football coach Joker Phillips after the 2011 Blue-White game.
Quarterback Morgan Newton, one of the most touted prospects to ever sign with the Kentucky football program has now arrived at the moment of truth. The junior, who started eight games for the 'Cats in 2009, as well as the 2011 BBVA Compass Bowl for Mike Hartline (the suspended Wildcat starter), owns the starting signal caller position for the first time in his Kentucky career. Barring terrific calamity, there will be no one looking over his shoulder, no wondering, "if I throw a bad pass will I be benched?" The job is his to do with it what he will.
That's where Randy Sanders, Kentucky quarterback's coach/offensive coordinator, comes into play.
Since 2006, when Sanders was brought into the UK fold by Rich Brooks, liberating him from the grasp of the Tennessee Volunteers after 16 years, eight years as quarterbacks coach, he has proven to be an integral part of the turnaround in Wildcat football fortunes. First working with the under-performing Andre' Woodson, then the less-than-accurate Mike Hartline, Sanders has earned his paycheck, and then some. Want proof? Check out how his philosophies and coaching have improved, each year, the effectiveness of the quarterbacks under his miracle-like tutelage:
Andre' Woodson, in his first two years playing the quarterback spot (2004 & '05), combined to put up these numbers -- 200-341 passing (58.7%), 2,136 yards (118.7 yards per game), eight touchdowns and seven interceptions. UK's combined record in those two seasons, 5-17.
In his final two years ('06 & '07), after working with Sanders, and fully committing himself to being Kentucky's quarterback, Woodson put up these numbers -- 591-937 passing (63.1%), 7,224 yards (277.8 yards per game), 71 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. UK's record in those two seasons, 16-10.
In Mike Hartline's first two seasons as the starting UK quarterback ('08 & '09), the moans and groans of discontent from the Big Blue faithful could clearly be heard around the Commonwealth. And for good reason. Hartline was hardly effective, putting up these numbers -- 251-444 passing (56.5%), 2,468 yards (145.2 yards per game), 15 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. UK's record, 14-12.
In his final season ('10), Hartline seemed to be a more confident quarterback, which resulted in him being a seemingly different player, a thought bolstered by these numbers -- 268-405 passing (66.2%), 3,178 yards (264.8 yards per game), 23 touchdowns and nine interceptions. UK's record, 6-6 in games Hartline started (a record which would have been significantly better if not for an inexperienced, porous defense, and a series of ill-placed turnovers by the offense).
Sanders' next pupil, junior Morgan Newton, is coming off a year in which he played sparsely in backing-up Hartline -- in five games Newton was 25-43 through the air (58.1%), for 265 yards and zero touchdowns, while rushing for 50 yards on 16 carries (3.1 yards per carry) -- after playing in eight games his freshman year, leading the 'Cats to a 5-3 record with two big road wins over Auburn and Georgia. Newton's freshman numbers, while not outstanding -- 75-135 passing (55.6%) for 706 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions, while rushing for 130 yards on 59 carries (2.2 ypc) -- were FRESHMAN numbers, and considering he plays in the toughest conference in the land, his performance was good enough to inspire hope.
So will Sanders be able to pull out of his quarterback the type of consistency, accuracy, and confidence one needs to succeed at the absolute highest level of collegiate football?
The answer to that question begins with Morgan Newton. Will Newton, like his predecessors Woodson and Hartline, commit himself to the film room? Will he commit himself to being a leader? Will he commit himself to becoming the best quarterback he can be?
All these questions might seem elementary, but how those questions are answered will go a long way in determining how successful Newton is in 2011. After all, Sanders can't throw one pass, or make one read, or set one protection package, or make one decision while being bull-rushed by a 290lb defensive end with felonious intentions. But Sanders can teach a student who is dedicated to making himself and his team better. That much we know. Newton has been blessed with the God-given, physical attributes a quarterback needs to succeed -- he has more than enough size (6'4") arm strength and mobility -- it's the immeasurable qualities that he needs to improve: The accuracy of his down-field throws, the solid decision-making to keep a drive alive, either with his arm or his legs. It's the reading of defenses, and altering the call when necessary (something Woodson and Hartline became quite effective at doing) ... it's all of these things Newton must learn how to do more effectively.
How Newton represents himself to his teammates is another factor in UK's season. If Newton's fellow 'Cats see him working, see him studying, see him organizing workouts (as he is currently doing), they will fall in line, and follow. If not, he won't have the requisite respect he needs to lead this team. When Newton is in the huddle, facing 3rd & long, his teammates need to believe in him, or there will be zero chance of success. And the person most often believed in, is the one who has put in the time and effort to make himself believable. It's the worker who exudes confidence, because he knows he deserves success, because he has put in the time.
With seven home games, and one neutral site game versus WKU in Nashville, the 'Cats' schedule is win friendly. And with an offensive line rated by some as the best in the brutal SEC East, UK's major question marks are the play of Newton and the performance of the older and hopefully wiser defense (under new defensive coordinator Rick Minter). Taking the next step? The Kentucky football program seems to be at the doorstep, poised to knock down that which has been so elusive for so many years, but it can't and won't happen without Morgan Newton being the leader he needs to be. It can't and won't happen without Newton improving his play. It can't and won't happen without Newton becoming the newest member of Randy and the Miracles.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!