LEXINGTON, Ky. | Mike Hartline's name is atop the Kentucky quarterback depth chart for the third straight preseason. But while the job is more familiar to him now than ever, his hold on it appears more tenuous.
The last two seasons, Hartline has essentially entered August camp as the undisputed starter. In 2008, his rival Curtis Pulley was surprisingly kicked off the team just as camp was getting under way. Last year, Hartline was unchallenged for the No. 1 job at the beginning of the year as a bowl-winning quarterback being pushed only by two inexperienced albeit immensely talented freshmen.
But things are different for the Wildcats' signal caller this year, and Hartline knows it.
At the team's media day on Friday, his new head coach Joker Phillips suggested he's only penciling in Hartline's name as the team's top quarterback as the Wildcats open their August practices.
“He'll start off as the starter, yes,” Phillips said. “I shouldn't say ‘start.’ He'll start off as the first guy that gets reps because somebody has to do it, and he's been around here the longest.”
Not exactly the strongest vote of confidence, but Hartline says he wouldn't expect anything less than a fierce battle for the job.
“The coaches aren't going to just give anyone a position regardless of who you are on the team,” he said. “If you don't come out and practice and play hard, you're not going to have that spot.”
After starting the first five games last year, injuries kept Hartline out of seven of Kentucky's last eight games – and he threw only six passes in the other.
That forced freshman Morgan Newton into regular action earlier than expected. While Newton didn't approach the lofty expectations from a high school career that turned him into a blue chip recruit, he improved noticeably as the season went on – including a three-touchdown performance in a critical victory at Georgia.
Newton, who also started the Wildcats' Music City Bowl loss against Clemson, figures one could argue he is as much the incumbent as Hartline.
“I played the last game,” Newton said. “He really didn't lose his position, kind of just got hurt. I guess it just depends on how you interpret it.”
And, don't forget Ryan Mossakowski. Newton and Hartline certainly aren't. Although he redshirted his freshman season while still recovering from shoulder surgery in high school, Mossakowski had eye-popping prep numbers – 7,433 yards and 51 touchdowns in Frisco, Texas – making him a strong candidate, too.
Although either Hartline or Newton figures to be the favorite for the first snaps due to their collegiate experience, Phillips has given every indication that Mossakowski and perhaps even some true freshman will get a shot at the top job.
“Everybody just knows,” Mossakowski said. “You really don't need to say something. All three of us know we're competing for the job. You just compete, have fun and relax.”
Phillips says it's a nice problem to have and that he believes any of his primary candidates can win, even in the loaded Southeastern Conference.
“We have two guys that have won games and led this football team, and we've got really, really talented freshmen that are just waiting to compete against those guys,” Phillips said.
Even before Hartline got hurt, Newton saw limited action early in the year, and quarterback-turned-receiver Randall Cobb also lined up frequently under center in the wildcat package. Although there will still be some mixing and matching under Phillips, the quarterbacks say they expect one of them to win the job and pretty much keep it this season.
“I just think it makes sense to have one person play,” Newton said. “It just makes it easier on everybody else to get in a rhythm. I think our schedule sets up to make a good run this year. Consistency would be nice for a change.”
Phillips said Hartline likely looked to be the best of the bunch in the spring, but he hadn't seen enough to tab him the starter just yet.
As he began his first media session Friday since taking over for his retired predecessor Rich Brooks, Phillips made a joking reference to recent comments by running back Derrick Locke, who opined Hartline should be the choice.
“Locke has already announced who the quarterback will be, so I don't think we need to take questions on that,” Phillips deadpanned.
On Friday, even Locke's lips were sealed.
“We'll see who's going to get the spot,” he said. “I'm going to leave it at that.”