Murray, Hartline Rise to the Top

ATHENS – When Kentucky takes the field this weekend, its quarterback will be a senior whose career has been erratic and had to earn back his starting job in August.

Georgia's quarterback will be a redshirt freshman whose play was a huge question mark before this season started.

And yet if you look at the SEC stat sheet in mid-October, Mike Hartline ranks second in passing yards and Aaron Murray is third.

Who saw that coming?

Auburn's Cameron Newton, thanks to his dual-threat capability, is probably the leader for the Heisman Trophy. Ryan Mallett leads the SEC in passing yards, which was easy to foresee.

Still, given the expectations, two of the league's most surprising quarterbacks will be on display when Kentucky and Georgia hook up on Saturday.

The two are very different quarterbacks, however, with two divergent backgrounds.

Hartline, at 6-foot-6, is more of a pure pocket passer. He was in and out of the starting lineup as a sophomore and junior, with an injury derailing his junior season. New head coach Joker Phillips made Hartline earn back the starting job, and he has come on lately, leading Kentucky to a comeback win over then-No. 10 South Carolina last Saturday.

"There's no question he's more mature, he's more experienced, he's playing with a lot of confidence right now," Kentucky offensive coordinator Randy Sanders told reporters in Lexington this week. "He's really seeing things well and he's playing fast, which is what you want a quarterback to do. Mike has played very well for us for a couple years. It's nice for him to have the weapons around him to reap the benefits of playing as well as he's played."

At Georgia, there was never any question about Murray being the starter, but only because there was no one else. He was a redshirt freshman whom the coaches were going to bring along slowly.

Instead the 6-foot-1 Murray has been one of the offense's few bright spots, even when star receiver A.J. Green was suspended the first four games. Murray has only found his receivers, but has rushed for four touchdowns.

"I thought he would run for a first down every once in a while, but I didn't think he would be able to make the kinds of plays he's been making," Georgia head coach Mark Richt said. "His speed has actually been impressive."

Perhaps even more important, Murray has exhibited ball security. He has no fumbles, and only three interceptions in seven games.

"He's thrown very few balls in a dangerous spot," Richt said. "He's thrown very few balls that could have gotten intercepted. And I think his accuracy is improving. It's one thing to complete balls, it's another thing to hit people on the move. I think he's begun to really hit people on the move a whole lot better."

That's one thing Hartline and Murray do have in common: Each has only thrown three interceptions this season, tied for the lowest among the league's starters.

When ranked the SEC quarterbacks in August, Murray was No. 8 and Hartline No. 9. But plenty of the quarterbacks ahead of them have been disappointing:

Alabama's Greg McElroy and Florida's John Brantley has struggled. Mississippi's Jeremiah Masoli, who joined the team in August, hasn't done much yet. LSU's Jordan Jefferson is barely holding onto his job.

Nationally, Murray is the top-rated freshman in passing efficiency. The sophomores ahead of him on that list are an impressive bunch: USC's Matt Barkley, Stanford's Andrew Luck and Michigan's Denard Robinson.

Murray said he didn't enter the season predicting he would do anything, and credited his receivers and line.

"I think I've slowly worked in there. I still have a lot of work to do, I'm nowhere near perfect," Murray said. "We watched the film from this past week and there are definitely some throws I wish I could've gotten back. And maybe some other things here and there."

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