Kentucky quarterback Mike Hartline is playing the best football of his career.
Determined to make the most of his senior season, he’s done that and then some.
After Hartline carved apart South Carolina’s defense for career highs of 349 passing yards and four touchdowns last week in the Wildcats’ 31-28 win, the Gamecocks’ assistant head coach for the defense, Ellis Johnson, said Hartline might be the best pocket passer in the league.
When Kentucky coach Joker Phillips announced that Hartline had won the job, there was more than a little grumbling. Some of the fans wanted to see the Wildcats go the youth route.
But Hartline’s consistency was what set him apart, and it was clear to both Phillips and Kentucky offensive coordinator Randy Sanders that he was the best choice.
Here’s the other thing: Hartline earned the job, whereas he was pretty much handed the job the previous two seasons.
“This is really the first time he had to compete for the job,” said Phillips, noting that Curtis Pulley was kicked off the team during Hartline’s sophomore season, leaving Hartline as the only choice, and that Newton and Mossakowski simply weren’t ready last season.
“I liked the way Mike competed. We played a lot faster when Mike was in there, and the rest of the team rallied around him when he was in there. So we went with him and are excited with what he’s done with the position.”
What Hartline has done is become one of the SEC’s most productive passers. He’s second in the league with 1,791 passing yards and tied for second with 13 touchdowns passes. His ratio of 13 touchdown passes to three interceptions leads all starting quarterbacks in the league.
And in conference games only, Hartline is the leading passer with an average of 277.8 yards per game, and his eight touchdown passes against SEC foes are tied for the league lead along with South Carolina’s Stephen Garcia.
“Before, we used to ask Mike to manage the game,” Phillips said. “Now, we’re asking him to go win games, and he’s doing that for us.”
With Georgia coming to town this Saturday, Hartline said there’s no doubt that he and the rest of the Kentucky offense are in a rhythm right now. The Wildcats are second in the SEC in scoring offense and third in total offense. Hartline said Sanders deserves a big chunk of the credit.
“He’s made it easy for us by molding the offense around what we do best and scheming up plays for us to be aggressive,” Hartline said. “Sometimes, we may not make those plays, but it doesn’t change the way he coaches. We’re always going to be aggressive.”
That’s the part of Hartline’s game that has grown the most. He knows now when to take a chance and when not to and when it’s time to try and squeeze one in a tight window and when not to.
He’s matured tremendously as a quarterback and as a leader.
“You still have to manage the game well, but there are always going to be opportunities in games where you need to take risks,” said Hartline, who’s engineered five comeback victories in the fourth quarter during his career. “I’m not saying you go out there and start making a bunch of arrogant throws, but you give guys chances to make plays within the discipline of the offense.
“The thing you never want to do is put your team in a bind.”
The 6-foot-6, 210-pound Hartline is also a testament to the power of perseverance.
He’s been booed by the Kentucky fans during his career. He’s been benched, and he’s been injured. He was playing well a year ago when he went down with a knee injury against South Carolina that ultimately ended his season.
Through it all, Hartline never quit believing in himself, and he never quit believing that his best was yet to come.
He said his older brother and Miami Dolphins receiver, Brian Hartline, was a big influence on keeping his focus where it needed to be and not worrying about what people were saying on the outside.
“I’ve never been one of those guys to shy away from competition and tell myself that I wasn’t good enough for something,” Hartline said. “My whole life, I’ve been good enough. I wasn’t going to settle for less here and was going to push myself to reach my full potential.
“My brother was a big motivator. He just said, ‘Nobody’s going to hand you anything, that you have to go out there and keeping fighting no matter what.’
“I really just took that to heart.”
And in doing so, he’s won a few hearts along the way in the Bluegrass.