MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - Because Kentucky quarterback Mike Hartline
lacks the arm strength of his predecessor and the foot speed of a
freshman teammate, he spent much of the season trying to escape not
one shadow, but two.
The low point came eight games in, when Hartline was yanked from
the lineup in favor of freshman speedster Randall Cobb. Hartline
would lay the blame for his demotion at the feet of his teammates
in comments to the media he regrets.
That's history now, though. Cobb is sidelined by injury,
ensuring a start for the redshirt sophomore from Canton, Ohio,
Friday in the Liberty Bowl against East Carolina. A win would give
Kentucky three consecutive postseason victories for the first time.
With no reason to look over his shoulder, a more relaxed
Hartline is focused on leaving his mark on Kentucky history.
"I think it will hit me when I step on the field," Hartline
said. "This is very important for us, not just for the team but
for the program. To win three straight would set a huge tone for
how far we've come to what we're doing now."
Perhaps more than any other player, Hartline personified the
occasional highs and more frequent lows of a disappointing 6-6
Kentucky season one year removed from Andre Woodson's
He had flashes of greatness, such as a two-TD performance
against Middle Tennessee that won him the Southeastern Conference
offensive player of the week award and a late scoring drive that
clinched victory over Arkansas.
But after a season that began with a Woodson-like 95 straight
passes without an interception, Hartline finished with 7 picks and
only eight TDs. He faces a ball-hawking East Carolina defense that
racked up 21 interceptions, including five against Tulsa in the
Conference USA championship game.
Hartline says he knows the opposition will be fierce, but he
says his rapport with the young UK receiving corps also has
improved during postseason practices.
"I've loosened up and I've connected with our receivers more,"
he said. "I know where they are going to be on the field. I know
the fastest guys. I know which guys have the best hands. I know all
of them are going to run hard every time. When you weren't certain
about that, it put question marks on your play as well as their
play. Now, it's like night and day from the beginning of the season
Senior left tackle Garry Williams, one of the few veterans on
the Kentucky offense, said Hartline has done a great job of
handling all that he has been through.
"He's been calm, cool and relaxed," Williams said. "I tip my
hat to him."
While Hartline acknowledges that he shouldn't have lashed out
after his midseason benching, he doesn't apologize for fighting for
a job he believes he should have kept.
"Everybody thinks that once they become a starter you're going
to be a starter for a long time," Hartline said. "I thought I had
it locked up for a long time. I'm a type of guy who won't let
anybody take it."
After the initial disappointment, he quietly went back to work.
When Cobb went down in the season finale against Tennessee,
Hartline entered the game and played well - albeit in a losing
"I'm proud of the way Mike handled the demotion," offensive
coordinator Joker Phillips said. "He had prepared himself the same
way as if he was the starter. He was able to get us in and out of
bad plays, made big throws. I was really proud of the way he ended
Hartline said it was just finding a new way to look at his
situation. He had won a scholarship for a major Division I program,
so his coaches clearly knew he could play. And if the team was
better with Cobb at quarterback, he even started to adjust to that
"I kept thinking, 'What is the worst thing and the best thing
that could happen to me after this?"' he said. "The worst thing
that could happen is if Randall keeps playing well, I don't play
ever again. But maturity kicked in. If I do get a chance to play
again, you have to be prepared to play when you're called."
It certainly didn't help Hartline's stats when some of
Kentucky's top skill players - receiver Dicky Lyons Jr., running
back Derrick Locke and even Cobb, who doubled as a receiver - went
down to injury.
But Hartline has learned, particularly the last few weeks, to
make do with what he has. In doing so, he has come to understand
the weapons of this much-maligned Kentucky offense are young, but
with a little practice, the potential is high.
"I didn't feel he was doing a terrible job in the first
place," said receiver E.J. Adams, a converted defensive back.
"Mike still won five games for us, no matter who it was against."
Cobb and others loom as potential replacements next season, but
Hartline takes that competition in stride, even occasionally joking
"If guys on our team aren't complaining about playing time then
we've got a bad recruiting class," he said. "It's just the way it