LEXINGTON, Ky. — Drew Barker was back in a familiar place Tuesday morning.
He stood behind a UK podium with cameras and recorders in front of him, speaking to the media for the first time since he was Kentucky’s starting quarterback. That was prior to a Week 3 matchup last season against New Mexico State. Barker left the game after the first series with a back injury, later had surgery in November, and has been working toward a return ever since.
That return has materialized with Barker participating in spring practice. It’s a juncture he was unsure he’d reach.
“You always kind of think that in the back of your head,” Barker said. “‘I don’t know if I’ll ever be back to how I was.’ But right now we’re making great progress. Everything is full steam ahead.”
But the progress will not be rushed. Kentucky quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw said the plan is to hold Barker out of Friday night’s Blue-White spring game.
“We don’t want anything crazy to happen, the intensity of the game and that kind of stuff,” Hinshaw said.
Barker’s last pass of 2016 came on Kentucky’s first series against New Mexico State. He was picked off, but not hit on the play. Coach Mark Stoops later revealed that some of Barker’s back problems were chronic. Barker said on Tuesday that he first tweaked his back in May during summer workouts.
“Then once we started practicing in fall camp and everything, it was kind of bothering me, but it didn’t really start really bad until the Southern Miss game,” Barker said. “I got hit on a fumble and I really just had a ton of shooting pain down my leg, went numb. So that’s when it really started. I was just trying to fight through it from that point on, really.”
Barker’s rehab from back surgery in November involved walking for an hour and a half every day. It was as much cardio as he was allowed to do. He said he’s about 75 to 80 percent healthy now.
With Barker’s return to health comes questions about his former job as starting quarterback. Stephen Johnson took over against New Mexico State and led Kentucky to its first of seven wins. Johnson starred in Kentucky’s upset of Louisville and guided the program to its first bowl bid since 2010.
Johnson, entering his senior year, is Kentucky’s undisputed quarterback. But Barker’s return means more competition.
Barker plans to graduate in August and enroll in an MBA program. Barker would be free to transfer without penalty as a graduate, but he said he’ll remain at Kentucky.
“I’m going to stay here and work out with all the strength coaches and get back,” Barker said. “I know a couple receivers are going to be staying here, so I’ll be able to stay here all May, June and July to get ready for fall camp. That’s the plan.”
Barker said he has a new appreciation of the game.
“I missed everything,” he said. “Just being out there with all my teammates, just being in the locker room at the same time as them. So it’s really just all the little things you kind of cherish now that you maybe didn’t appreciate before, but now you really don’t take anything for granted.”