You remember back in the long history of Kentucky football when the Cats were frantically looking under every rock in hopes of digging up just one credible, serviceable quarterback for the upcoming season.
To be sure, there have been years when UK was blessed with a talented QB — “Let the Deuce Loose” and the “Pillsbury Throwboy” among them — who could deliver the ball on time and on target, yet the fandom was forced to hold its collective breath for fear the No. 1 quarterback might be injured and, well, there was no No. 2.
Not this year. Not these Cats. Not if we go by what happened Friday at Commonwealth Stadium. There before a healthy gathering on a beautiful night for a Blue-White spring game, Gunnar Hoak, a 6-foot-4, 206-pound redshirt freshman quarterback from Dublin, Ohio, put on a show.
Starting with the second-teamers on the White squad pitted against the first-team defense, Hoak completed 12 of 18 passes for 92 yards and two touchdowns. Then, in the second half, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran switched Hoak to the Blues, where he completed four of six throws for 82 yards and engineered another touchdown drive.
“That’s what Gunnar has been doing all spring,” quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw said.
Here’s the thing: When fall practice cranks up at the Nutter Football Facility, Hoak will be the No. 3 quarterback.
Stephen Johnson will be No. 1. Yes, the senior was off his game Friday night. He missed some passes. He overthrew receivers. Hinshaw said the California native got “greedy” looking for home run plays. Plus, Johnson was hurt by Friday’s rules of engagement. The you’re-touched-and-you’re-down statute with regard to quarterbacks kept Johnson from using his quickness to elude pass rushers and extend plays.
“It was frustrating,” Johnson said. “But I understand why they did that.”
Besides, spring games count less than real games. And in real games, the 2016 games, it was Johnson who all but saved Kentucky’s season, the juco transfer subbing in for injured starter Drew Barker the second series of the third game and leading UK to its first bowl appearance since 2010.
“Stephen had a great spring, OK?” said Hinshaw on Friday. “Stephen is fine.”
It looks like Barker is fine, too. Or at least he could be by fall, if not sooner. In his prolonged absence, it’s easy to forget the junior was a highly coveted recruit out of Conner High School who won the job in fall camp a year ago and helped put up 28 points on Southern Miss in the first half of last season’s opener.
Alas, the nagging back problem that began last May for Barker turned into a major back injury by September. Unable to play through the pain, he went on the shelf, then the surgery table. During rehab, for cardio training, all he was allowed to do was walk — and take grief from his teammates.
Barker was not full-go in spring drills, but he did enough to convince everyone his comeback is on schedule. He said his back felt fine. No pain, either, when throwing or twisting to make handoffs. His major foe is rust. He has the summer to knock that off.
Then there’s Hoak, who issued a don’t-forget-about-me proclamation. Behind the scenes last season, Hoak’s redshirt season, those in the know raved about his poise and pocket presence. Popular refrain: He looks and acts like a quarterback.
Under the Friday night lights, Hoak put those skills on display for the general public. He delivers a nice ball. He doesn’t rush under pressure. He’s accurate. Coach Mark Stoops even went so far as to use the term “effortless” when describing Hoak’s throwing motion. The description fit.
Now the disclaimer: This was a spring game. Stoops said both the first- and second-team defenses used vanilla schemes. No crazy blitzes. No sophisticated pass coverage. As mentioned previously, the defense was not allowed to hit the quarterback.
Still, Hoak backed up Hinshaw’s statement that UK could win SEC games with Hoak at quarterback. Or Barker at quarterback. Or Johnson at quarterback.
That’s the rare commodity known as depth.