Even the most mundane parts of spring practice have Drew Barker smiling widely under his Kentucky face mask.
“I missed everything,” the quarterback 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.”
While teammates might be dreading yet another round of position drills, Barker is embracing them.
“I’m just happy I can even do this,” he continued.
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A few months ago, the 6-foot-3 junior wasn’t sure he’d be able to do any of it again after learning that all other options had been exhausted and that the only answer to the pain in his lower back and numbness in his leg was surgical.
Since that surgery in late November, Barker has been steadily getting back to where he once was as Kentucky’s starter.
“So far, so good,” Barker said in his first interviews Tuesday since the third week of September. “I haven’t had any setbacks and everything is going smooth. Actually we didn’t even know if I would be able to be at this point right now, so it’s a really good sign.”
Kentucky fans probably won’t get to see Barker back in his uniform in game action on Friday during the Blue-White Spring Game, with quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw saying that the plan is to hold Barker out as a precaution.
“We don’t want anything crazy to happen, the intensity of the game, all that kind of stuff this spring,” Hinshaw said Tuesday. “He’s really been in some scrimmages and we’re really pleased with where he’s at.”
Barker is hopeful that fans will be able to see him on the field again come September. The junior confirmed Tuesday that he’s staying on campus this summer taking classes and working out in hopes of competing for the job he earned last year.
“That’s the plan for sure, just stay here all summer, get ready and start the competition back up for fall camp,” said Barker, who is on pace to graduate in August and plans to enter the MBA program at Kentucky after that.
Coaches have been pleased with Barker’s progress.
But what is Hinshaw’s message going into the summer?
The same one he’s given to all of Kentucky’s quarterbacks, including Stephen Johnson, who replaced Barker as starter and helped lead the Cats to their first bowl game in six seasons.
The junior-college transfer helped UK win four games in the Southeastern Conference and led the Cats to a big win over Louisville to end the regular season. Johnson finished with 2,037 passing yards and 16 total touchdowns, including three rushing.
“It’s just like anything, you can only do what you can do and what you can control and Drew needs to continue to get better just like Stephen does, just like Gunnar Hoak does, just like all the quarterbacks,” Hinshaw said. “Continue to get better at what you can control.”
Barker has been excellent with his footwork and has worked hard to get back onto the field, the coach said.
“You can see that he’s ready to continue to perform,” Hinshaw continued. “He has to continue to get reps through the summer and as much of the team stuff as he can do to get the rust off and get ready for fall camp.”
Coaches have been careful this spring to speak in generalized terms about that position group. It doesn’t sound like any player has been promised a starting spot.
“To have a really good football team, you better have quarterbacks, and we’ve got some really good quarterbacks,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said, noting the plural.
“You talk to them about competing and winning the job and then when your time comes you better be ready to go. Just like Stephen. His time came last year and he made the most of it. You just don’t ever know. That’s what the conversations are.”
A nagging injury
Fans first learned of Barker’s back problems after a hard hit in the New Mexico State game sent him to the locker room on a cart. But the discomfort had been lingering for months, he said.
“It was like I tweaked it a little bit,” he said of an incident in May. “It wasn’t anything serious. And then I was going through all the summer workouts and everything and I kind of started aggravating it a little more so we kind of held back on those.”
As fall camp went on, it continued to be a nagging problem that only got worse with each tackle, starting with the season opener against Southern Miss. Barker was hit on a fumble and felt a shooting pain down his leg.
“I was just trying to fight through it from that point on,” he said, admitting that he wished he’d said more to coaches and trainers about the pain sooner.
“But that was my first opportunity trying to be out there. I just wanted to give it everything I had.”
He gave everything he had to his rehab after back surgery as well, including walking in circles (on the track) around his teammates under the warm Florida sun as they prepared for the TaxSlayer Bowl without him.
Barker was excited to watch Kentucky’s success last season, even at times from the outer circle while he tried to get healthy.
It’s made him that much more excited for spring practice.
In the past, Barker had heard professional athletes talking about having their love for the game renewed by time away. It’s something with which he can identify now.
“You don’t really think about that until it actually happens to you,” he said. “So really, like I said, not taking anything for granted. It’s all the little things you enjoy now.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
TV: SEC Network