LEXINGTON — Morgan Newton thought he was “the guy” at quarterback last spring, before losing out to Mike Hartline.
But going into spring practice, the Kentucky junior knows this is his team now, and he’s ready to take over that role and show why he was one of the highest-rated quarterbacks coming out of high school.
“And I think that’s the attitude you’ve got to take. I’m just happy to get more chances to come out and get better. It feels good to be in the leadership role,” Newton said Tuesday. “I’m really excited. I’m really excited to go out there and pay with these guys some more. You only get so many times you get to play, so I’m ready to get out there and get going.”
He’ll be leading an offense which lost its top passer, rusher and receiver, returns just two experienced wide receivers and three tight ends which saw time last year.
Kentucky coach Joker Phillips is hoping Newton can step in and take charge of the team.
“I want to see Morgan lead, first of all. We think Morgan is a leader. We’ve got to be proficient in the passing game, but we want to see Morgan take control the offense and lead them in the right direction. He’s definitely talented enough,” Phillips said. “We’ve been here before with a quarterback with very little experience. He’s definitely better from the bowl game he played freshman year to the bowl game he played in this year.”
But Phillips will be anxious to see what happens when Newton gets under pressure and take some hits.
“How comfortable is he standing in there to the last minute? I learned this early in my career, a great quarterback is one that stands in there and takes one right in the lips right before he delivers,” the UK coach said. “Morgan’s done it a few times, the more times you see it the more times you understand how good of a quarterback he is.”
Newton threw for 216 yards on 21-of-36 passing in the Wildcats’ 27-10 loss to Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl, getting the start after Mike Hartline was suspended. The Cats had just 315 yards of offense, and Newton said that performance showed how much improvement UK still needed.
“A lot of things that have got to be shored up after a game like that,” he said. “Everybody, and I do for sure, but everybody’s got to get better. It was a different situation coming in for a bowl game.”
Newton admitted it was hard to get ready for the game after sitting behind Hartline all season.
“It’s tough coming not having played a lot during the year and a lot of meaningful minutes. But you’ve got to make best out of the situation,” he said.
He used the offseason to learn as much a possible.
“Just getting in and watching film. You don’t have to be there all day watching film ... just certain things you’ve got to look for in the defense,” he said. “There are secrets and tools you can always use. I think there’s some things you can see in the offseason.”
With all the skill position losses, what Newton does have going for him is an experienced line in front of him, with four returning starters as well as senior Billy Joe Murphy.
“So we should be pretty stable,” said senior guard Stuart Hines, one of the four returning starters with Larry Warford, Matt Smith and Chandler Burden. “But we’ve got a lot of improving to do. We’ve got a lot of stuff that we still need to learn and a lot of work we need to do to take the next step to be a great offensive line.”
The loss to Pittsburgh was a bitter pill for the line to swallow after the Cats rushed for just 104 yards on 32 carries and converted just five of 13 third-down opportunities.
“That and feeling like we underachieved a little bit last year, we’ve had kind of a sour taste in our mouth, ready to come back and improve this year,” Hines said. “Pass protection’s always an issue. It’s something you have to figure out with each team you play. That will be a big issue going into the spring.”
“It’s our job to give (Newton) time to do what he needs to do. What we’ve got to do is give him a chance to show off his skills he’s got, or anybody else who is back there.”