It’s all about the feet.
Arm strength is important. Vision is invaluable. Accuracy, poise and preparation matter, too. Getting all that stuff right doesn’t help a quarterback one bit, however, if his feet are all wrong.
“(If) their feet aren’t right,” said UK’s new quarterbacks coach, Darin Hinshaw, on Tuesday, “then they’re not where they need to be.”
Right now, Kentucky’s quarterbacks are not where they need to be. This is nothing new. Truth be told, UK’s quarterback play has not been a strength the past few seasons. Kentucky fans know it. Since relocating down I-75 along with new offensive coordinator Eddie Gran over the winter, Hinshaw has heard it.
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“I’ve heard that many times,” Hinshaw said Tuesday, “that the quarterbacks have not performed well.”
New coach, better day — so everyone hopes. This spring, Hinshaw is working with five pupils. Sophomore Drew Barker is the only quarterback with UK game experience. He started two games last season. Stephen Johnson is a junior-college transfer. Gunnar Hoak is a true freshman who graduated from high school a few months ago. Davis Mattingly is a walk-on from Louisville. Luke Wright is a transfer from Cincinnati.
The biggest thing with quarterback play is targets and decisions. We’ve got to throw the ball on target and we’ve got to make good decisions with the football.
Kentucky quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw
How are they doing? Too early to tell. Hinshaw said all five are at the same learning level. Barker and Johnson are getting the most reps. Johnson has gained 18 pounds. He’s at 187 after arriving at 169. Considering he enrolled early, Hoak has done well. Hinshaw bragged on Mattingly’s Tuesday practice. “I’m letting all five quarterbacks play,” he said.
Not one is where he needs to be, but that’s OK. Tuesday was UK’s third practice of the spring and the first since the team returned from spring break. Hinshaw has seen progress but likes the fact there are 12 more practices to go.
“The biggest thing with quarterback play is targets and decisions,” he said. “We’ve got to throw the ball on target and we’ve got to make good decisions with the football.”
Throwing the ball on target starts not with the arm, but with the feet. First day of practice, footwork was bad. Kentucky’s quarterbacks were taking big steps. Hinshaw wants small steps. He wants their feet underneath them. Considering he’s starting from scratch, he has seen improvement from the first to third day. He needs to see more.
“When I show them film of Drew Brees doing it in college, the same drills — this is before he’s making $20 million a year,” Hinshaw said. “When I’m showing them Gunner Keil at Cincinnati, who just threw 50 touchdowns in two years; showing them Brendon Kay, who went to the Pittsburgh Steelers doing the same drills, it makes them understand that we’re not just doing them to do them.”
Hinshaw does something else during those drills. He throws dummies at his quarterbacks. They duck. Or side-step. They are forced to avoid the dummies while setting their feet and making the throw.
“Then I show them a clip of Drew Brees having a linebacker fly right at his face,” Hinshaw said. “He gets out of the way and throws a completion. That’s why we do the drills.”
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Hinshaw summed it up this way, “The whole key is to be comfortable being uncomfortable. We have to be comfortable at being uncomfortable in the pocket.”
The pocket is often an uncomfortable place, after all. Lots of quarterbacks can make great throws from a comfortable pocket. The great ones make great throws from an uncomfortable pocket. Tom Brady does that. Aaron Rodgers does that. Brees does that. Peyton Manning did that.
“They bring a blitz and you threw a ball 50 feet over the receiver’s head because you’re not used to being uncomfortable, that’s what’s happened here in the past,” said Hinshaw. “We’ll do everything to them. They’ll have so many things happen that the actual game is easier for them.”
For Kentucky, better quarterback play is the goal. The process has just started, however. It’s started with the feet.
Kentucky’s five quarterbacks this spring
Drew Barker: The sophomore out of Conner High School is going through his third spring at UK. He started the final two games last season as a redshirt freshman.
Gunnar Hoak: The true freshman from Dublin, Ohio, graduated from Dublin Coffman High School early so he could participate in spring drills. Hoak was rated as the 38th-best pro-style quarterback in the class of 2016 by 247Sports.
Stephen Johnson: The junior from Rancho Cucamonga, California, is a transfer from the College of the Desert via Grambling. He’s gained 18 pounds since coming to camp.
Davis Mattingly: The redshirt freshman from Louisville is a walk-on out of Male High School. Mattingly threw for 2,035 yards and 33 touchdowns his senior season at Male.
Luke Wright: The sophomore from Atlanta transferred to UK from Cincinnati, where new UK offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and quarterbacks coach Darin Hinshaw were employed last season.