BARBOURVILLE, Ky. - It's never easy to follow a legend. Expectations are up, and the bar has been set high. However, Union College red-shirt freshman quarterback Mike Brinkley has taken everything in stride and is putting up some impressive numbers of his own.
Joey Waters produced some lofty numbers, throwing for 7,880 career passing yards and 66 career touchdowns - both program records. During his senior campaign, Waters set the school marks for most completions (253), attempts (422), passing yards (3,216) and touchdowns (27).
Heading into the 2008 season, the Bulldogs returned nearly everyone, but Waters' absence left some question marks about who would guide the team.
The Anthony, Fla. native has held his own this season, completing 147-of-244 passes for 1,972 yards and 27 touchdowns, tying the record Waters set just last year. In only nine games, Brinkley is just 28 yards away from recording the fifth 2,000-yard passing season in program history.
Oh, and Brinkley has led Union to its first winning record since 1995 and first NAIA Top 25 ranking since 1996 as the Bulldogs are 7-2 overall and 4-1 in the Mid-South Conference East.
What helped the 6-foot-1, 161-pound signal caller get acclimated to the system is that he enrolled at Union in January and was able to participate in spring practice, allowing him to have the playbook in hand several months earlier.
"That extra half year and being able to learn the offense was huge," said Brinkley. "If I came in this fall and had only three and a half weeks to try to get everything down, there is no way I'd be where I'm at now.
"In the spring, I was able to learn the timing and routes of the receivers. Spring helped me out a lot."
Senior wide receiver Kyle Callahan (Covington, Ky.) is grateful to have had the extra time to become familiar with his new quarterback.
"He picked up the offense in a hurry," said Callahan. "He's a smart kid; he's intelligent; he knows where his third and fourth options. It was a dream come true for him to come in the spring."
By and large, Brinkley has gone relatively unnoticed this season. While he is not racking up huge yardage numbers, he manages to put points on the board and keep his mistakes to a minimum.
"If you look at his numbers, he's averaging a little over 200 yards per game, and a lot of that has to do with how balanced our offense is this year," said Union head coach Tommy Reid. "But the important thing is that Mike's finding ways to put points on the board."
Union is putting up the points in record pace. Through nine games, the Bulldogs have scored 299 points for a 33.2. Union has scored over 300 points in a season three times, posting a program-best 334 points in 1994.
In all, Union has tallied 39 touchdowns - 10 on the ground, two by the defense and 27 coming from Brinkley's arm.
"That's a whole team thing," Brinkley said of his touchdown total. "The offensive line gives me the time to throw it, and the wide receivers are making the catches.
"Our offensive line doesn't get any credit. They out-work all of us in practice. They are very prepared, and they are the reason for our success."
What's most telling about Brinkley is that he shares the wealth. He has completed passes to eight different receivers with five having 19 or more catches and no one having more than 31. Additionally, seven have hauled in scoring passes.
And while Callahan leads the team with 10 touchdown receptions, Rolando Dyer (Lawrenceburg, Ga.) isn't far behind with eight. Prior to this year, no Bulldog had ever caught more than nine touchdown passes in a season.
"I think we have one of the better skilled wide receiving corps in the nation," said Brinkley. "I'm not a quarterback who is going to key one guy because defenses pick up on that. I'm going to hit the guy that's open, and my receivers, if they break one tackle, could be gone."
The Bulldog wide outs put their big-play ability in last week's 37-34 win at then-No. 10 UVa-Wise, recording five plays of 30 yards or more including scoring plays of 40, 64 and 62 yards.
In that key MSC East win at UVa-Wise, Brinkley displayed poise and maturity beyond what is generally expect of a freshman. After throwing an interception that led to a 27-10 deficit midway through the second quarter, Brinkley and the Bulldogs slowly began their comeback.
Touchdown passes to Callahan and Dyer pulled Union within 27-24 by halftime. A third-quarter field goal tied the game before Brinkley hooked up with Chris Thomas (Hopkinsville, Ky.) for a 62-yard scoring play to put the Bulldogs up 34-27 with 7:07 remaining in the game.
After the Cavaliers tied the game with 3:40 left, Brinkley orchestrated an eight-play, 75-yard drive to set up the game-winning field goal with 12 seconds to play.
"Mike doesn't change during the week or during the game. He just keeps focus and playing the game one play at a time," said Reid of Brinkley's performance versus UVa-Wise. "He did a good job in recognizing what the defense was doing and attacked accordingly."
Brinkley finished the game completing 17-of-26 passes for 329 yards and four touchdowns, earning him MSC and NAIA Offensive Player of the Week honors.
Running back Terence Pollock (Orange Park, Fla.) noted that Brinkley's ability to shake off his mistakes and move on was paramount to the Bulldogs' comeback victory.
"When he throws a pick, he doesn't get down on himself. He keeps his head up," said Pollock. "I've never seen him with his head down, and because of that we don't get down as a team."
Despite the solid numbers he's put up, Brinkley is not totally pleased with his overall performance in this his rookie season.
"The season's not going how I'd like it to in regards of turnovers. The nine interceptions were just dumb mistakes," said Brinkley. "I want to have minimal turnovers, help the team succeed by managing the game and help lead us to a conference championship.
"When we are playing good football is when we have no turnovers. Of course, that's the key to football - not turning the ball over."
With the success that Brinkley has had thus far, Reid has a guarded optimism about the future of the program.
"He's done a great job this year, particularly being a freshman and in his first year as a starter," the Bulldog coach said. "Obviously, that makes us feel good about the future, but you never know."
Brinkley and the Bulldogs play host to MSC East foe Campbellsville (Ky.) University Saturday at 1:30 p.m.