The knee injury that Mike Hartline suffered against South Carolina on Saturday has put Rich Brooks and his staff in position they did not believe they would be in until next fall: having to decide who will start at quarterback for UK.
In an ideal world, Brooks would be making this kind of decision next July and August between an incumbent senior coming off of a strong junior year and two sophomores who had made strong cases for themselves in spring practice.
Instead, a quarterback decision must be made by Saturday at 7:30 pm. The decision is between backup junior Will Fidler and star freshman recruit Morgan Newton.
Coach Brooks has said that the two will split reps in practice this week. A focus will be placed on quick decision making, as both have been lacking in that area. A simplified package will be installed for both, to ease the transition to starter for whomever earns the job. Brooks has also made Newton and Fidler off limits to the media all week, a rare secretive move from a normally full disclosure kind of coach.
That means we are all left to our devices to analyze and predict the decision. So that’s what I am going to do here. I’m going to break down the cases for and against Fidler and Newton as starter.
The Case For
Fidler is a veteran. He has played in Rich Brooks system for three plus years and undoubtedly has a better grasp of what Joker Phillips and Randy Sanders expect from their quarterbacks than his competitor. Fidler does not have much first team experience, but has at least gotten game action.
Fidler, though he did not perform particularly well last weekend, showed an ability and a willingness to push the ball downfield, something that UK fans have long looked for from Mike Hartline.
Fidler, in short, would likely provide a more seamless transition from Mike Hartline. The offense, while simplified, would remain largely the same. Fidler would be the safe choice, more likely to manage the UK team and win games that he should.
The Case Against
Fidler is not the future at quarterback. No matter how well he performs, he would be nothing more than a stop gap. UK is not going to get better long term by playing Fidler because he’s not going to be playing the position a year from now, let along two or three years from now.
With Fidler at QB, UK’s ceiling is finite in my opinion. I don’t really see UK beating a team like Auburn on the road with him at the helm, because I don’t think he’s capable of making enough plays. UK will be limited and conservative on offense.
The Case For
Newton, on the other hand, is the future (along with Ryan Mossakowski). Allowing him to play right now would get him valuable experience on the SEC level, experience you can’t get on any practice field or in any film room. Newton is going to have to take his lumps at some point, and it may as well be sooner rather than later.
Newton also gives UK a playmaking threat with both his arm and his legs. Joker Phillips has always wanted a QB with the kind of abilities that Newton has and it could open up the playbook in ways that not even Andre Woodson could. Newton does not grasp the offensive as well as he eventually will, but he will be able to make plays when a play does not seem to be there. With Morgan Newton, the ceiling is much higher.
The Case Against
Playing Newton right now could stunt his development. A poor performance against Auburn on the road before he is ready, could do damage to his psyche that could take a long time to undo. The last thing that Rich Brooks wants to do is throw him to the SEC wolves.
Also, just as Morgan Newton’s ceiling is higher than Fidler’s, his floor is likely much lower. A bad game from an unprepared Newton could be downright awful.
Let’s be honest here. I tried to be impartial, but I think my opinion is pretty clear based on what I have written. UK should start Morgan Newton if his performance in practice is even comparable to Will Fidler’s. Granted, if Will Fidler turns out to be way ahead of Newton, I can’t question the decision.
However, I would understand if Rich Brooks decides to go with Fidler for this week. UK has three winnable home games after the trip to Auburn that should be much less trying than playing in Jordan-Hare. If Brooks makes the judgment to go that Newton just isn’t ready to play on the road in the SEC, but does want to play him, it would make sense to hold him out for one more week.
For what it’s worth, most of the word coming from football insiders says that the players believe that Newton is going to be the quarterback. I don’t think we will know anything official until Saturday, but we should have some stronger indication as the week goes on.