LEXINGTON, Ky. — How quickly we forget. Not so long ago, Drew Barker was the face of Kentucky football, the homegrown high school All-American whose arm inspired Wildcats fans to imagine Tim Couch 2.0 and whose charisma lured other top talent to join him in the highest-rated recruiting class in program history.
He seemed so important to the future that Kentucky put him front and center in its 2014 Super Bowl ad before he’d even practiced with the team. By the end of the 2015 season, he was such a lock to assume his rightful place as starting quarterback that Patrick Towles, who had thrown for 5,000 yards in that job, transferred.
So then there he was, Drew Barker, golden boy, doing exactly what everyone thought he would in the 2016 season opener against Southern Miss. With seven minutes left in the first half, he’d already thrown for 287 yards and 4 touchdowns and built a 28-7 lead.
“He played like Drew Barker was going to play the whole season,” Cats QB coach Darin Hinshaw said Sunday. “I really believe that.”
How then did we get here, to the 2017 Kentucky football media day, where lightly recruited junior-college transfer Stephen Johnson had become the face of the program, the conquering hero, the entrenched starting quarterback from whom Barker must now wrestle the job?
It all started with a secret.
Barker’s back started hurting during team workouts last summer, but he tried to keep it quiet and push through the pain. By fall camp, “it started aggravating me quite a bit,” he said. “I was trying a bunch of alternative treatments and doing a lot of things that just weren’t working, honestly.”
Last season felt so important to both Barker and a program desperate to breakthrough in Year 4 under coach Mark Stoops, that he tried to press on. That plan fell apart on Kentucky’s first possession of the third quarter against Southern Miss.
Barker was sacked and fumbled as he tried to twist free and uncork a pass. The impact and the contortion combined to send “excruciating pain down my leg,” he said, “and it started snowballing from there.” The Wildcats didn’t know it yet, but they lost a game — Southern Miss roared back for a stunning upset — and a starting QB that night.
Barker stayed in the game, attempting just four more passes (three short completions and an interception), took a pounding at Florida the next week and was finally pulled after one series (and an interception) in Week 3 against New Mexico State. Only surgery could fix Barker’s back, so suddenly it was Johnson’s team.
Improbably, the skinny kid from something called College of the Desert won seven of 10 games as the new starting quarterback and outdueled Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson in an upset of rival Louisville in the regular-season finale. He threw for 2,037 yards, ran for 327 and produced 16 total touchdowns against just 6 interceptions.
Just like that, Johnson was on the cover of Kentucky’s 2017 media guide and representing the Wildcats at SEC Media Days, making the rounds on TV talk shows. He earned the right to say this is his team now, and he has said it, repeatedly — not in a boastful or disrespectful way, but rather as a guy who took charge and led UK to a bowl game last fall and expects to do the same in his senior season.
But here’s the thing: Barker is healthy now, 100 percent cleared for preseason camp and full contact, driving a golf ball 300 yards with no pain and pushing a weighted sled with not so much as a flutter of discomfort in that back. And when Barker was healthy, the Cats’ coaching staff was sure it had a star in the making.
That same coaching staff has been careful in its public comments this summer to leave the door open for Barker to win back his old job.
“Of course” there is still a QB competition, Stoops said Sunday. “There’s a competition at every position, every day.”
For his part, Johnson, who could be forgiven for thinking he shouldn’t have to fight for the starting job after what he accomplished last season, is handling it well.
“There should always be competition going into it — even during the season. You should always compete,” he said. “I’m with that 100 percent. Competition makes all of us better, so I can’t let up at all; they can’t let up at all.”
There’s a third contender, redshirt freshman Gunnar Hoak, star of this year’s spring game. Hinshaw said he can’t be counted out in this race, but the real battle seems to be between Barker and Johnson — the past and present faces of the program.
It’s worth noting that Kentucky leaned heavily on its formidable running game after Barker went down, and that Johnson completed just 54.7 percent of his passes last season. He also ranked second nationally in fumbles (10) and fumbles lost (6).
Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said of Johnson’s butter-fingers: “I don’t think there’s any question he’s going to get it fixed, because he won’t be playing [otherwise]. And he knows that.” To which Johnson nodded in agreement.
He’s been eating 5,000 calories a day to bulk up to a whopping 190 pounds and carrying 45-pound weight plates around the football facility to improve his grip. But Barker had a prototypical QB build from Day 1 and said he enters this season stronger than he’s ever been, eager to show coaches and fans they’ve yet to see what he can really do.
“Even in the first half of that Southern Miss game, [my back] was bothering me pretty good,” he said. “That’s what is driving me and motivating me, because I know the level that I can perform at, I know the level that I can play at. Last year, there was a competition and I won it, so I definitely feel like if I’m capable and healthy — which I feel like I am right now — I can go out there and compete as hard as I can and win it back. So that’s my goal. I’m not going into camp thinking I’m going to be sitting on the sidelines all season.”
Uh-oh. QB controversy? Hardly. This is what most football coaches would call a good problem to have, multiple quarterbacks capable of winning in the SEC. There have been plenty of seasons where Kentucky has struggled to find even one.
Barker is going to get reps with the starters in preseason practice “just like I gave Stephen reps last year with the ones, in case something happened,” said Hinshaw, who ended up quite glad he did. “So they’re going to have reps to get ready and, yes, there is going to be competition.
“The one thing I don’t do is go, ‘Hey, it’s your job. You don’t have to do anything. We’ll see you Sept. 2 against Southern Miss.’ That is not happening.”