UK football: Expectations for Barker tempered despite hype

jsmith3@herald-leader.comFebruary 8, 2014 

Drew Barker, who enrolled early at Kentucky to take part in spring practice, threw for 6,264 yards and 62 touchdowns in his career at Conner while also running for 3,931 yards and 51 scores.

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There he stood larger than life in the middle of television screens across the Bluegrass during the single most important football game of the season.

Wearing the mythical gray uniforms — seen only in recruiting propaganda but never on the football field — stood Drew Barker.

If the many stories passed on bar stools and Twitter of the single quarterback who helped assemble and deliver the most highly touted recruiting class in Kentucky football history weren't enough to elevate Barker to cult status, being the central figure in UK's Super Bowl ad probably was.

Was the Conner quarterback's centralized location as his new head coach narrated: "Recruit and develop; prepare to win" an indication that he is UK's starter this season?

Barker certainly looks the part, all 6 feet, 3 inches and 217 pounds of him. A homegrown hero not coincidentally interviewed in a signing-day special by the most homegrown of homegrown heroes in Tim Couch.

"I'm not sure our marketing people asked Coach (Mark) Stoops or myself," quipped offensive coordinator Neal Brown when asked last week if the commercial was an endorsement of or a coronation for Barker.

A few days before the signing-day celebration of the nation's 17th-ranked recruiting class, UK's best since rankings have been kept, Brown tried to temper expectations put on the UK signee, one of seven players to enroll early at UK to get a jump on schoolbooks and the Cats' playbook.

"I don't think any one person saves the day," Brown told the Herald-Leader when asked about the quarterback competition that is to unfold this spring between Barker and as many as four others.

"Tim Couch would be the first one to tell you that he didn't save the day without Craig Yeast or if Derek Homer's not there, I can keep going down the list," the offensive coordinator continued. "One person's not going to save the program.

"We just need better quarterback play, whoever it is, they've gotta play better than we played last year."

Without a quarterback seizing the position in part because of talent level, injuries and the implementation of a new system, UK struggled to put up the normal numbers of a Brown offense.

The two main quarterbacks that tried to pilot the depleted Cats offense last season, Jalen Whitlow and Maxwell Smith, will be juniors. Smith seems out of the running — definitely out of the spring — after off-season shoulder surgery.

Also returning is red-shirt sophomore Patrick Towles, another Bluegrass-born hero touted as the key cog in his own recruiting class a couple of years ago.

Then there's Reese Phillips, who like Barker came in at this time last year, learned the system, and moved up to the No. 2 position on the depth chart by the end of last season.

"We'll be much improved at the quarterback position, but I'm not looking for any one person or anything to save the day," Brown said.

'I came here to play'

Coaches have said that Barker will have his shot to earn the starting spot just like the others.

And the four-star quarterback intends to compete for the job.

"That's what I came here to do is play," Barker said Wednesday. "That's why I came early also, was to get an opportunity, get the workouts, get the playbook under my wing and everything. I came here to play, and I'm going to try to win the job."

Stoops doesn't seem to disagree with Barker: "I expect him to come in from day one and compete for the starting job, and that's why we recruited him."

But will Barker be able to beat out the other guys on the crowded depth chart at quarterback?

And if he doesn't, then what?

"The interesting thing that Coach Stoops and his staff are going to have to deal with is that he's a local legend," national Rivals.com analyst Mike Farrell told the Herald-Leader last fall.

"He is a guy that fans are going to want to see out there whether he's ready or not. Choosing Kentucky, choosing to stay home, being the leader of this recruiting class — he's almost got this cult worship."

Farrell didn't exactly compare Barker to another Southeastern Conference quarterback of mythical proportions in Tim Tebow, but a recent scenario that played out with the former Heisman Trophy winner from Florida could happen at Kentucky.

"When Tebow was with the Broncos, every time something went wrong and he was the backup, they started the 'Tebow' chants," Farrell said. "That's one of the reasons he's not in the league right now is because he was such a popular figure that he was too distracting."

Imagine, already, the crowd at Commonwealth Stadium and their "Drewwww" chants, Farrell painted.

The national recruiting analyst worries that fans will want to rush Barker into a role he isn't ready to take over.

"And that could be dangerous," Farrell said. "Stoops is smart enough to know that this is not a three-year plan. This is a five-year plan. And if Drew redshirts or he plays a little bit as a true freshman and competes for the starting job after that, I think Stoops is fine with that."

So far, Barker isn't just saying the right things, he's doing the right things, too, his position coach said.

He graduated Conner a semester early to dive into the UK playbook and mesh with the team during spring practices. Barker hasn't been strutting around the locker and weight rooms making empty promises or barking orders, Brown said.

"I like what he's doing right now," Brown said. "To be a great leader at the quarterback position, you have to earn everyone's respect. To earn respect, you've got to show them before you tell them. Right now, he's in the show phase of it."

Once he gets reps with the ones and twos and starts to make some plays, then he can become the more vocal leader that a team like Kentucky has seemingly lacked for the past couple seasons.

"The more respect he gets, the more vocal he can be," Brown said of Barker, who completed 65.9 percent of his career passes for 6,264 yards and 62 touchdowns at Conner while also running for 3,931 yards and 51 scores.

"But I really like how he's handling himself within the team right now."

Brown argued that being a true freshman doesn't necessarily lessen Barker's chances at the starting spot, pointing to a quarterback he recruited to Texas Tech just two years ago.

As a true freshman, Davis Webb was a regular starter and led the Red Raiders to a bowl win over a top-25 team in Arizona State.

The success of a player like Webb, who threw for 2,718 yards and 20 touchdowns in 10 games, greatly depends on the players around him, though.

"That's one of the things that people don't factor in," said Farrell, the Rivals analyst. "If you go out there as a true freshman and your offensive line stinks and you don't have wide receivers, you're going to get killed.

"Kentucky doesn't have the talent around them that Johnny Manziel did, or Jameis Winston certainly. Everybody on that team is a four-star."

Whether he earns the start or not, fans might have to remind themselves that Barker is an 18-year-old who technically shouldn't even be graduating from high school until June.

"He was really well coached at Conner, and they had a good team, but it's going to be a huge jump in competition," Brown said. "You never know how those things are going to work. ... You've got to be real careful to not put a lot of pressure on him. I think the better he performs, the more you give him."

Herald-Leader staff writer Ben Roberts contributed to this report. Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.

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