Kentucky football: Mark Stoops says next year’s quarterback battle could be ‘awkward’
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Drew Barker was entrenched atop Kentucky’s quarterback depth chart to start the season, but now he seems like a sure bet to be behind Stephen Johnson as the Wildcats head into next year.
“Yeah, I think I’d be lying if I didn’t say it won’t be a little awkward now,” coach Mark Stoops told SEC Country on Wednesday.
A back injury ended Barker’s sophomore campaign after just three starts. Unable to come back from the injury, Barker had surgery the week of Thanksgiving. And while Johnson’s tenure wasn’t always smooth, his last game was his best and he led Kentucky to all seven of its wins.
But even more than his 338-yard, 3-touchdown performance against Louisville, Stoops pointed to Johnson’s performance against Austin Peay as being noteworthy. Johnson was seen in warmups with a brace on his left knee and backup Luke Wright started in Johnson’s absence. But after Kentucky fell behind, 13-0, Stoops and assistant head coach Eddie Gran called on Johnson, who was only to be used in an “emergency situation.”
Johnson’s injury was never revealed in the week leading up to the game, and after the game, he told reporters he was 95 percent. Stoops said that wasn’t the case.
“I mean he had a legit injury,” Stoops said Wednesday. “He was hurting. To play that position and to play as effectively as he did with as banged up as he was says an awful lot about him.”
And then Johnson played his finest game seven days later to lead Kentucky to its first bowl bid since 2010.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a quarterback that could’ve played the way he did with the way he was injured to come back and play against Austin Peay, and then bounce back and play like that against Louisville,” Stoops said.
The momentum of a Governor’s Cup win and a bowl bid seem to have Johnson in the lead, but Gran, who also serves as Kentucky’s offensive coordinator, didn’t want to speculate on the starting spot for next season, given Barker’s uncertain status.
“We don’t know when he’s coming back, when those days are, so I don’t even worry about it,” Gran said.
Stoops said he still has “great faith, trust and confidence” in Barker. Although it could create an awkward situation, he’s happy to have two qualified candidates.
“If that’s another position, we’re all happy about that, right? The fact that it’s the quarterback does make it a little different because a lot of the offense will look to that guy,” Stoops said. “It’s a good thing if you have two guys with experience, with the ability to lead and the ability to win. I think as a head coach I would be doing an injustice to anybody if I didn’t say, ‘You’ve gotta compete for the job.’”
Barker is expected back when spring practice starts. Johnson and the Wildcats will finish their season against Georgia Tech in the TaxSlayer Bowl on Dec. 31 in Jacksonville.