It’s been nearly five months since Kentucky walked off the Commonwealth Stadium field after a brutal loss to Louisville.
But the key questions going into that game remain the key questions going into the team’s Blue-White Spring Game: Who will be the Cats quarterback? Will he be consistent enough to make UK’s offense go?
The Drew Barker that left that game after connecting on just six of his 22 pass attempts has by all accounts flourished under new offensive coordinators Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw.
The sophomore has not been named the starter outright, but there have been lots of comments dropped that imply he’s leading that race and “being pushed” by junior college transfer Stephen Johnson.
One reason for that seems to be an evolving, maturing Barker.
“I don’t see the ups and downs,” Coach Mark Stoops said recently of the sophomore. “I see a guy that’s very steady. …
“I really like what I’m seeing out of him. He’s competitive and he likes to play, but the off days. I’m seeing a guy who’s studying film more, that’s more serious about his business and that’s showing up on the field. He’s much more consistent.”
Last week with the offense struggling, Barker was able to make “some tight, critical throws” during situational work, Stoops said.
“Coach Gran, Coach Hinshaw, they call it the white paper mentality,” Barker described. “You just got to flip the page. It’s a new page, forget about the last play.”
It’s been sort of a metaphor for Barker’s time at UK overall, just putting the bad stuff behind him and trying to take the fresh start and build himself into a starter.
That starts with the things Stoops mentioned: getting in the film room, studying the offense.
“You’ve just got to take advantage of the opportunities and I feel like film study is only going to help me down the road,” said Barker, who played in five games last season with two starts, completing 50 percent of his passes with one touchdown and two interceptions.
“Anything I can do that’s going to benefit me come game days, I’m trying to take full advantage of it,” he continued.
Hinshaw, the quarterbacks coach, doesn’t know about Barker’s habits before, but the Barker he’s worked with this spring has been willing to do the work behind the scenes.
“Drew has been just nipping at it to learn,” Hinshaw said. “He’s been a sponge.”
Hinshaw said he’s seen improvement overall from Barker.
“His feet have gotten a lot better; we’re working on his target balls also,” Hinshaw said. “He’s moving his upper body a lot with his passing, which can cause a ball to be off just a foot or two and be an interception or an incompletion.
“So we’re getting him to be a little more calm with his upper body and we’re working on that. It’s starting to show now with his target balls getting better and better.”
This will be Barker’s first opportunity to show those improvements in front of a curious audience.
Ten things to watch
All of you will be studying Barker’s every step in the pocket, but there are plenty of other interesting storylines to watch on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium.
Here are 10 things I’ll be watching:
1. Courtney Love: The linebacker transfer from Nebraska has become a vocal locker room leader without ever playing a down of football at UK. His play in the center of the defense this season will be pivotal.
2. Linebackers in general: Perhaps D.J. Eliot summed it up best when the defensive coordinator said: “We just don’t have any experience at that position.” Replacing guys like Josh Forrest, Khalid Henderson and Ryan Flannigan in 15 practices won’t be easy. I’ll be interested to see how comfortable they look doing the basics. Lots of chatter this offseason about the motor of Josh Allen and the bump that could come from guys like Eli Brown, Kobie Walker, De’Niro Laster and others.
3. C.J. Conrad: In a word, his position coach called the tight end “wow” earlier this spring, but how will the under-utilized player deal with being used in so many different ways within this new offense? And will we finally get a look at Nebraska transfer Greg Hart, who also has been called a potential difference maker?
4. Ryan Timmons: After what the wide receiver described as one of his worst seasons of football in 2016, will we see the “new” more confident Timmons everyone has been describing? The former Franklin County star and fellow slot WR Garrett Johnson have both been moved around this spring to get the ball in their hands more.
5. UK wide outs versus UK secondary: Little battles that have quietly been the talk of the spring have been going on between the Cats underwhelming wide receiver group last season and its young, overachieving secondary. It’s been fun to watch them go back and forth this spring, we’ve been told. I’m eager to see that.
6. Punt and kick returners: Those positions could change dramatically with the influx of freshman talent arriving on campus this summer. But it will be fascinating to see if any players have stood out in those areas. Someone needs to this season if UK wants to break its streak of six straight years without a punt return for points (Randall Cobb) and seven straight years without a kickoff return for a score (Derrick Locke).
7. Special teams: Stoops laid out how the teams will be divvied up for the spring game with the No. 1 offense and defense in blue and the others in white (with a little overlap for subs), but he did not say if there would be any punting, kicking, etc. So we’ll all have to wait and see what we get to see. UK is still looking for a full-time special teams coach, which could alter the plans a bit, too.
8. Offensive line: So many storylines with four of the five starters back, but uncertainty about who will play where and when. I’ll be looking at that left tackle spot that seems to belong to Cole Mosier as well as how George Asafo-Adjei looks after being moved from tackle to guard. This is the fourth year of college for that highly touted group of linemen (Nick Haynes, Kyle Meadows, Ramsey Meyers). Will this be their breakout season?
9. Defensive line: Regie Meant and his motor have been a highlight of the spring and he’ll be on one side of Matt Elam with Courtney Miggins on the other. It will be fascinating to see how this group works together and whether or not they’ll be able to help the Cats in both run stop and pressuring opponents behind the line of scrimmage.
10. Crowd size: Fans likely haven’t forgotten the second straight late season collapse for the Cats nor the second half collapse against Louisville at Commonwealth Stadium just a few months ago. About 26,000 tickets are out for the game and the weather is supposed to be stunning. So how many will show?
‘Feeling good about yourself’
This game will be a lot like vanilla soft-serve ice cream in that it will give you a sweet taste of what the new offense will look like, but it likely won’t feel super filling.
Gran said he doesn’t plan on anything fancy, he just wants to see execution with no slop using a condensed game plan.
“There’s not going to be a lot — there might be some disappointed people — but it’s a spring game,” he said. “You want to get out of there with everybody healthy. You want to score some points and you want to be successful. You want to come out of there feeling good about yourself.”
The offense will be without some key playmakers, too, with offseason surgeries and a few players banged up.
The Cats will be missing last season’s leading rusher in Boom Williams and its leading wide receiver in Dorian Baker, who went through about nine practices before having a minor procedure done on his knee. Coaches expect him to return in June. Williams is still coming back from an offseason surgery on his elbow.
UK also will be without wideouts Blake Bone (pulled hamstring) and Alexander Montgomery (knee surgery), as well as tight end Darryl Long (offseason surgery).
Defensively, the Cats will be without safety Mike Edwards, who was taken to the hospital with an undisclosed injury on Tuesday, but is expected to return this summer. Also missing will be true freshman Kash Daniel, who is still working his way through the concussion protocol and fellow linebacker Nico Firios (shoulder), as well as defensive lineman Tymere Dubose (knee).
“We’ll be down, we’ll be a little thin, but hopefully we’ll have enough guys to put a good product out there and have a nice scrimmage and have some fun,” Stoops said on Thursday. “That’s the bad thing about spring games in general: Everybody’s all excited about them, but when you split up two teams, you get thin real quick.”
Kentucky wide receiver T.V. Williams is leaving the team, the Herald-Leader learned on Friday. The 5-foot-10 junior from McKinney, Texas, played in four games last season with one catch. He did not play in three of the Cats’ last four games. In his 10-game UK career, Williams had five catches for 59 yards.
▪ UK announced via Twitter that there will be three new uniforms on display for the spring game, blue for the first team, white for the rest and black for the quarterbacks. ... A Cat Walk will take place at around 10:40 a.m. in its usual spot near Gate 1. ... UK Athletics is holding a public surplus sale starting around 9:30 a.m. in the Nutter Indoor Center. Team apparel and gear will be available for discounted prices.