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ONLINE EXTRA: Phillps' first major decision a tough one

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Defensive improvement will be the key to the Wildcats' season, though

By John Herndon

I would not want to be in Joker Phillips' shoes right now.

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His first major decision, as far as most fans are concerned, could be one that defines his first season as head football coach of the Kentucky Wildcats.

But, in reality, another area could be the major factor in determining the success of Kentucky football in 2010.

Unless you have been exiled to the outer reaches of the Yukon, you know what that first major decision is: Who will be the quarterback under center when the Wildcats open the season at Louisville on Sept. 4?

Mike Hartline, Morgan Newton or Ryan Mossakowski?

It is a subject that has been debated over and over and over and over and, well, you get the idea, since even before Phillips became head coach upon Rich Brooks' retirement in January.

And no single decision by a new head coach in America will be more scrutinized by the media that covers him every day than the one Phillips and offensive coordinator Randy Sanders make between now and that Louisville game.

Everyone who even remotely follows Wildcat football knows the storylines.  Hartline is the most experienced and even has a bowl win, the 2008 Liberty Bowl, under his belt. Newton is the highly-regarded signal-caller out of the Indianapolis area who was thrust into the job as a freshman when Hartline went down with an injury last year. He showed some flashes of enormous potential.

Then there is Mossakowski, a redshirt freshman who sat out last year following shoulder surgery but might be the most talented of the three.

Hartline came into spring practice with a bit of an advantage and remains just slightly ahead after spring practice, but Phillips said none of the three separated himself enough to be named No. 1 heading into the fall.

Not that Phillips is complaining.

“I'm not disappointed," Phillips said after Saturday's Blue-White game. "The reason I'm not disappointed is because I think we can win with all three of those guys."

For the record, Hartline went 11-for 24 for 124 yards and a touchdown. He made some outstanding throws, but also had a few times that you had to wonder who was at fault when it appeared that he and the receiver were not on the same page on a route.

Newton had some big runs and showed his potential play-making ability when he scrambled to find Gene McCaskill for a 19-yard pickup.  But on the next play, he threw an interception in the end zone. Newton completed 6-of-12 for 92 years.

Mossakowski had a rather pedestrian stat line – 6-for-12 for 37 yards – but just showed the presence of a quarterback in the pocket.

Most of us do not  see practice enough to really know what the coaching staff sees, but based on the two practices and the Blue-White game that I saw, I believe Hartline will be the one taking the Wildcats' first snap in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium in September.

But I would not be shocked if Mossakowski or Newton is the one either.

Phillips alluded to that thinking, noting that Newton and Mossakowski both made big strides in the spring.

“The thing I like about Morgan and Moss is they played in the stadium better than in practice," Phillips said. "They closed the gap more so than Mike came back to them. I'm happy with the progress those two guys made from day one. In day one there were some concerns with me. But since day 15 I've been happy with all three of them."

We shall see.

From this corner, however, the biggest concern is defense.

Even though there were some big games from freshman tackle Mister Cobble and junior linebacker Dannay Trevathan, who had a spectacular sack, the defense had far too many missed tackles in the Blue-White game.

I would like to think the 60-25 final (based on a point system that Phillips instituted for the game) is the result of the offense being that good.  And, to be sure, running back Donald Russell had a huge game with 118 yards and two touchdowns, prompting Phillips to note that Russell “continues to plead his case.”

But one has to be concerned about a defense that will be trying to plug some major holes and missed too many tackles Saturday.

That, more than who is under center at Louisville, will determine how far the Wildcats go in 2010.

E-mail John Herndon at jpherndon@theandersonnews.com.

 Anderson News sports editor John Herndon was part of the media contingent in the press conference in which the videos below were taken.

Videos appear courtesy of vaughtsviews.com.