Hardluck Hartline still working for respect

Brian Rickerd/ State Journal Sports Writer Published:

LEXINGTON – Does it ever get tiring, fifth-year UK senior quarterback Mike Hartline was asked this weekend, to be asked about the status of the quarterback position with the Wildcats?

Meaning, will the hard-luck Hartline be the starter? With the implication occasionally being: I hope it's not you.

Two years ago, after former UK great Andre Woodson departed, Hartline's maturity was questioned when he threw some teammates under the bus in the newspapers, so to speak, when he was benched late in the 2008 season.

Throughout his tenure with the Wildcats, both Hartline's touch and arm strength have been questioned.

Then, last season, when Hartline was enjoying what promised to be the best game of his college career in a week-five road tilt at South Carolina, came the cruelest blow of all: Hartline suffered a sprained knee ligament and bone bruise when he was hit by a USC player after the play was blown dead by the officials. Hartline was 9-of-14 for 139 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions at the time of the injury.

But fickle fans have short memories these days, so when new UK head coach Joker Philips proclaimed the quarterback job up for grabs going into spring practice, it was assumed by many that it would be Newton, or even redshirt freshman Ryan Mossakowski, who would take the reigns at QB for UK.

But this past Friday at the team's media day, there was Phillips proclaiming Hartline as the No. 1 guy at QB, and there was Hartline being questioned about the decision.

"Wear on you?" Hartline replied, when asked Friday if the questions about the status of the QB spot grow tiring. "No, it doesn't wear on you. I've known that you have to compete no matter what position you're at, and no matter what the depth chart looks like. You just do what you know how to do best. You can't take a back seat to anybody. You have to make plays. You have to make all the right throws when you need to.

"You have to prove you're a fifth-year senior quarterback, and if I can't do that, then I don't deserve to be playing."

Yes, Mike Hartline has learned a lot through four years here. On Friday, when Hartline was yet again questioned about his status as the No. 1 signal caller for the Wildcats, to his enduring credit, he did not flinch, did not frown and did not brush off the questions.

"You never want to approach that question in a way that makes everybody think you're cocky or that you have the job locked down," said Hartline, who's 8-6 as a starting quarterback at Kentucky. "But you have to have confidence. You have to tell people you hope it goes in your favor, and you're going to work real hard towards it.

"And I just think I have a little more motivation, being in my last year and all ... and this is going to be the last time I go through this ... it just really hits home how much you want it. And so you express that to people."

Hartline says he's up to the task, both mentally and physically. He says he will wear a knee brace as an aid to help prevent further injury (every QB should wear one on his lead leg, whether injured or not, Hartline says). He says his leg is 100 percent ready to go.

He gives new UK strength and conditioning coach Rock Oliver a lot of credit for that.

"This past offseason I've worked as hard as I ever have, with Coach Rock and his staff," Hartline said. "I've always gone into it with the mindset that any time I'm going to lift or run, I'm going to be the most competitive guy out there that I can be. Everything feels great now. The guys in rehab and in our training room did a great job with me. They pushed me to the point where I wanted to quit, but they kept after me. I'm really supportive of what they do.

"Me, being a fifth-year senior, nothing is going to surprise me," Hartline adds "It's just a matter of playing fast, leading the guys, making all the throws I need to make, and make sure practice stays in a good state of flow."

That comment begs the question that Hartline has heard throughout his college career: CAN he make all the throws? Early on, Hartline could not throw the ball deep with any accuracy and he had a poor touch on the short throws much of the time. Last season he was looking better in both areas before his injury. That improvement continued in the spring when Hartline nudged ahead of Newton and Mossakowski at quarterback.

Still, questions linger, at least from the outside.

"I feel like I'm ready," Hartline said when asked if he can, indeed, make all the throws. "I feel like the deep ball has definitely improved on my part, and I feel like we have the guys who can go up and make plays downfield. And I feel like when I need to pull the ball down and run, I can do that. I can't do that as well as Morgan (Newton) – we all know that – but I can make positive yards and keep the chains moving."

Phillips indicates that it's something intangible, maturity, that is at least one key reason why Hartline has a leg up at QB.

"Mike is mature," Phillips says. "He comes from a sports family. He knows how to handle situations. He knows how to handle being thrown in the fire. He goes out and wins seven games his first year (2008). I mean, the guy understands it. He spent some time this off-season in Miami with his brother (Brian, a second-year wide receiver with the Miami Dolphins), being around the pro players. So he understands the business. He understands the criticism. He understands the pats on the back. Those are things you have to have to be a quarterback."

Hartline says he would like to get to the level of his brother in the NFL.

"You want to put everything out there on the field," Hartline said. "You want to give yourself the opportunity to get to the next level. Everybody has goals and everybody has their highest goals, and they may be unreachable or too hard to get there, but you still have to try for them and put forward your best effort. If I put forth my best effort and it doesn't go my way, at least I can say I did my best."

And if Hartline does not keep the quarterback job this season with the Wildcats, he expects to react in a mature fashion, unlike the manner he did two years ago when he lost the job to Randall Cobb late in the season and more or less blamed some of his teammates for his downfall.

He has, again, learned a lot since then.

"You have to give respect before you earn it," Hartline says. "I've been here awhile. I've earned my respect, and I've come back from the injury working as hard as I can and just knowing I would do anything for this team to win."

Whatever the coaches’ decision about quarterback for the season opener Sept. 4 at Louisville, Hartline does not expect the kind of two-quarterback system UK has had since Woodson left two years ago.

"Nobody wants a two-quarterback system," Hartline said. "I'm pretty sure (offensive coordinator) Coach Sanders doesn't. It's just tough to do that – on the quarterbacks and on the coaches who call the plays. You want a guy who's a full-time starter.

"I have no doubt in my mind that Coach Phillips and Coach Sanders will make the best decision. And, no matter what it is, I will stand behind it 100 percent. It's a team sport.

"But I'm going to do all I can to push myself to the point where I can't do anything more to get where I want to go."


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