The 2016 season is over, and rosters are starting to come together for 2017, so it’s the perfect time to evaluate each team’s quarterback situation for next season.
Quarterback issues were a significant part of the SEC’s struggles last season, but starters return at 12 of the 14 conference schools. The turnaround should be immediate. Kentucky made major strides in 2016 and qualified for its first bowl game since the 2010 season. Surprisingly good quarterback play was a significant part.
To clarify, this grade takes into account a team’s entire quarterback situation, including backups. Just having a great starter isn’t necessarily good enough to earn a quality grade.
Make sure and read all our previous quarterback installments:
Key returners: Stephen Johnson (senior), Drew Barker (junior), Luke Wright (junior)
Key departures: None
Key additions: Gunnar Hoak (redshirt), Danny Clark (true freshman), Walker Wood (true freshman)
Returning production: 166-305 for 2,399 yards, 17 TDs, 12 INTs; 111 carries for 304 yards, 3 TDs
Departing production: None
Kentucky seemed to have the position locked down going into the season. Former 4-star recruit Drew Barker took over the position late in 2015, taking the job from struggling QB Patrick Towles. While he struggled in his first two starts, his promise was intriguing enough to convince Towles to transfer.
But in his third game of the season against New Mexico State, Barker suffered a back injury that ultimately forced him to miss the rest of the season. He had surgery over Thanksgiving break.
Stephen Johnson, a former quarterback at Grambling State, took over the position and did an admirable job. He led the Wildcats to wins in four of its first five starts, with the only loss coming against No. 1 Alabama. Ultimately, his 6-3 regular season record as a starter was more than enough to earn Kentucky its first bowl berth under Mark Stoops.
Johnson saved by far the best performance of his career for rivalry week. He threw for 338 yards and 3 touchdowns in a win over eventual Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and the Louisville Cardinals. He added 83 yards on the ground.
There’s an old adage in sports that a player should never lose his job solely because of injury. Unfortunately, that happened here.
While Johnson is the presumptive 2017 starter, his performance was inconsistent. Johnson threw for fewer than 150 yards five times in 2016. Despite throwing for 13 touchdowns, all of those scores came in just six games. Much of his production was also centered on home run plays — there’s a reason Johnson’s completion percentage was just 54.7 percent. Luckily, it was enough to keep his yards per attempt at a solid 7.7, but Kentucky needs more consistent production heading forward.
It’s unclear at this point whether Barker will even be ready for spring ball. Regardless, Stoops told SEC Country in December that Johnson is expected to top the quarterback depth chart next season. If Barker can come back in time for the 2017 season, he will be a nice backup quarterback.
Elsewhere, the Wildcats have a couple of young quarterbacks they are excited about. Should Barker not be healthy, Luke Wright likely will step into the backup role. However, the Wildcats also have Gunnar Hoak, who redshirted last season, and two promising incoming true freshmen. Losing Barker would be a huge hit to returning experience on the roster, but there will be several options if things go bad.
Johnson is a fine quarterback. He made winning plays for Kentucky in 2016. However, he needs to grow as a passer to complement an excellent running game. With Boom Williams gone to the NFL, Johnson’s arm will become more important. It’s unclear at this point whether that’s a good thing.