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Kicking it with Kentucky's Mike Hartline

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Kentucky coach Rich Brooks doesn’t mind saying that one of the main reasons he feels so good about this season is the improved play of junior quarterback Mike Hartline.

Indeed, it was a different Hartline on display in the Wildcats’ season-opening 42-0 victory over Miami (Ohio) in Cincinnati two weeks ago.

He was accurate with his throws, threw the ball down the field with confidence and even turned a busted route into a touchdown.

Afterward, Brooks said, “Now he can win games. That’s a significant change in Mike Hartline’s game. He can put the ball where it needs to be.”

The days of simply managing the game are over. The Wildcats will need that same version of Hartline to show up the rest of the way because the challenges are about to get a lot stiffer, starting with arch-rival Louisville on Saturday.

It wasn’t always fun for Hartline last season. He was booed by the home fans, later benched and then returned to the starting lineup late in the season to lead Kentucky past East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl.

He used that momentum to have a bang-up offseason.

Heading into spring practice, Brooks made it known that Hartline was his quarterback -- period.

After going 18 of 27 for 222 yards and two touchdowns in the opener, Hartline showed why his teammates and coaches had been raving about how well he’d been throwing the ball these last several months.

He took some time this week to talk about his brisk start and where he and the Wildcats go from here:

Where do you think this offense is going into the Louisville game compared to where you thought it would be at this point?

Mike Hartline: It’s kind of hard to tell. But compared to a year ago right now, we’ve improved tremendously. We just have a lot more athletes on the field. Everybody’s on the same page and know what they’re doing. Our offensive line is much more experienced, and having this group of guys around me gives me more confidence in everything I do.

The general feeling coming into the season was that other than Randall Cobb, the receiver position was going to be hurting for playmakers. How big has the addition of junior college newcomer Chris Matthews been?

MH: The hard thing with new guys coming in is that you don’t know how they’re going to play or how they’re going to improve once you get into the game situations. I’m really thankful that Chris has done everything he’s done to get ready for the games and has caught on so quickly. All he wants to do is play football. He just wants to go out there in front of big crowds and make big plays. To have a guy with his presence out there is a great feeling if you’re a quarterback.

You don’t usually see guys his size (6-5 and 210) with the speed he has, do you?

MH: He can get down the field and release on guys and is a powerful guy, too. He can fight off receivers and get open. Having a guy as big as him who has the speed to get open makes your eyes pop wide open. Some guys just have that ability to get open, and he’s one of those guys.

How much better at the technical part of playing receiver is Cobb this season after coming to Kentucky as a quarterback?

MH: He’s a quick learner. When you explain something to him, it only takes him about two or three times to get it right, even if he hasn’t done it before. He’s just one of those guys who’s so naturally athletic that he can do anything you ask him to do.

Where have you improved the most as a quarterback?

MH: The game has just sort of naturally slowed down a little bit. That’s what happens the more you play. Your confidence level goes up when you know what it takes to play at the SEC level. Also, you have to have the ability to get the job done. I think I’ve not only grown up in that area, but you also realize there are other guys out there that are going to help you. Sometimes you’ve got to put the burden on them to make plays and not myself every time. Just having the guys around me gives me so much more confidence to make those plays. I’m making quicker decisions and getting those guys the ball faster, and they’re able to do more with it.

Given your ups and downs a year ago, how much did it mean to you that Brooks was so adamant all offseason that you were his quarterback?

MH: It always helps when you hear it out of coach Brooks’ mouth. He’s a guy who’s hard-nosed and old school, but he’s a man of few words. If he does say something, then it means something. If you hear him say that I’m his quarterback, then you can take it to heart. I just think I had to prove to myself that I wasn’t going to take a step back. Randall took over midway through last season, and then I was able to come back and play in the bowl game and do well. From there, you’ve just got to tell yourself you’ve got to keep improving on what you do. You can’t be the same, old quarterback you were last year. I wasn’t going to let that happen.

Being around most of these guys for a while now, how good is the chemistry on offense?

MH: That’s something we really worked on in the offseason, making sure they’re thinking what I’m thinking every time we go up there and snap the ball. In that regard, we’ve excelled. Now it’s almost like we don’t have to say too much to each other.

How do you balance being a quarterback who looks to make more plays this season, but does so without taking too many chances?

MH: Last year, I wanted to make plays, but we were shorthanded in knowing where we were going to make them. It was tough for everybody to get on the same page and trust that we could take shots down the field or do whatever we needed to make a big play. This year, we can take those shots and not just play down and distance. We can mix it up and call different things, and that’s what opens it up for me.

Starting with Louisville on Saturday, the schedule really gets tough these next few weeks. How important is it that you’re playing some of your best football right now, especially with Florida and Alabama coming up in back-to-back weeks?

MH: To play these type of teams very early is actually going to show what type of football team we are. However it turns out, we’re going to prepare to win. I think this will only make us a better team in the long run.

Kentucky has won three straight bowl games for the first time in school history. What’s the next step for the program?

MH: Our big philosophy is to finish. In the last few years here, we’ve started out pretty well, might have a loss or two, and then toward the end, it kind of falls apart. What we’re trying to do now is get to that bigger bowl game and to not settle for only six or seven wins. We want to be up there around eight, nine or 10.