After a memorable enough first half against Louisville a season ago, Drew Barker had a second half he wishes he could forget.
Kentucky’s quarterback connected on one of his final 14 pass attempts. His Cats choked away a huge lead against their most hated rival and the season ended with a thud at Commonwealth Stadium.
It’s been 280 days since that game.
It’s felt much longer to Barker.
“I just can’t wait to get back out there again,” he said this week as UK prepared for its season opener against Southern Miss on Saturday. “It’s felt like it’s been two years, but I just can’t wait to get out there. It’s been a long offseason.”
That long offseason has included some new, improved footwork, and long sessions of film study discussing his decision making with a brand new position coach in a brand new facility.
I really just can’t wait to get out there and really sling it around. Can’t wait.
UK quarterback Drew Barker
In those early days with new quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw, there was much discussion about Barker’s decision-making off the field. And on it.
“‘I don’t know where you’re looking, but we’ve got guys open and you’re constantly late,’” Hinshaw recalled of watching old games with Barker. So much of the tardiness was about poor footwork, which has long since been changed. “We’re way past that now. We’ve been focused on moving forward and what we’re going to do this game.”
Going into this game, a different Barker has emerged.
A more mature quarterback with more ready help around him, head coach Mark Stoops said.
When asked if there was one position group that he was most excited about seeing Saturday night in the opener, the longtime defensive coach said he’s eager to see the offense.
“I think that’s where we’ve made big strides and I am excited to see the whole offensive unit, and I’m certainly excited to see Drew take the field a year older and with all the work that he’s put in,” Stoops said. “I’m excited to see him play.”
The Cats’ new coaches are taking as much pressure off of the redshirt sophomore quarterback as they can, making him as much game manager as offensive leader.
“Those guys, the playmakers that we have, they’ve played a lot of football,” Barker said. “They can make a ton of guys miss in space, so my role is really just to get those guys the ball and let them make the plays. I’m kind of just a facilitator.
“A point guard, really, just passing it to the playmakers. I don’t really feel like I have to do too much at all.”
And what he does have to do has been drilled into Barker’s head over and over again, since the first few days of watching video in January to leading drills this summer to getting comfortable in fall camp.
“We’re really confident,” Barker said. “We’ve gone over these plays thousands of times, thousands of repetitions so I really just can’t wait to get out there and really sling it around. Can’t wait.”
So much of what the coaches are saying to Barker about getting the ball to playmakers helps take pressure off the signal caller, who has played in five career games with two starts.
There’s no need to overcomplicate the position, Hinshaw said, especially with so much talent, both old and new, around him.
“You don’t have to be great,” is the message, the quarterbacks coach said. “You just have to do your job. Every down you go in there, you don’t have to think, ‘Oh, I’ve got to make this post throw and win the game.’ You don’t. You just have to make all of your reads the correct way, make great decisions with the ball.”
Barker is hopeful that when he walks off the Commonwealth Stadium field some 280 days later, the feeling will be different.
Game day operations
On game days, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran is on the field and Hinshaw is in the coaches’ box. They’ve been working together this way for several years and think they have it down pat.
“He’s the field general and calling the plays and I’ll be up there telling him exactly what the defense is doing,” Hinshaw explained. “We have a game plan of what we think they’re going to do and there will be adjustments and we’ll have to make them fast. That’s the whole point.”
There are a certain number of scripted plays they run to start a game and then make adjustments based on what a defense gives them. Then they have a set number of scripted plays out of the halftime locker room.
As for how the communication with Barker goes, Hinshaw said he will speak with his quarterback after every series over the phone to discuss the previous series and the one coming up.
There isn’t a ton of latitude for Barker to change the play at the line of scrimmage, but he does have several options out of each call sent in, he explained: “We pretty much have a different thing I can do for pretty much a lot of different looks. It wouldn’t really be an audible. It’s more just built into the play.”
At Southern Miss, there is an entirely new coaching staff on both sides of the ball. At Kentucky, there are three new offensive coaches and two new defensive coaches.
Both teams have had to be creative in game planning for the other, including watching film of several former schools.
None of this even gets into the number of new players for each team, including a mostly new front seven for Kentucky and several key new players offensively for the Golden Eagles.
The biggest drama going into the game comes via Shannon Dawson, the former UK offensive coordinator who was fired after one season and now holds the same position at Southern Miss.
He might have summarized the entire situation best this week: “I promise you both sides there’s enough question marks. … Hopefully our question marks play better than theirs.”
▪ The Golden Eagles have lost 13 straight against the Southeastern Conference. Their last win over an SEC foe was against Alabama on Sept. 16, 2000, in Birmingham. They are 3-14 against SEC opponents in openers with the last win coming in 1996 over Georgia.
2016 UK FOOTBALL SCHEDULE
(Home games in capital letters)
Sept. 3: SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI, 7:30
Sept. 10: At Florida, 3:30
Sept. 17: NEW MEXICO STATE, 4
Sept. 24: SOUTH CAROLINA
Oct. 1: At Alabama
Oct. 8: VANDERBILT
Oct. 22: MISSISSIPPI STATE
Oct. 29: At Missouri
Nov. 5: GEORGIA
Nov. 12: At Tennessee
Nov. 19: AUSTIN PEAY
Nov. 26: At Louisville