Stephen Johnson has one more game as Kentucky starting quarterback. For UK, it is a big one, too.
How the underdog Wildcats (7-5) fare against No. 20 Northwestern (9-3) in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl on Dec. 29 in Nashville will essentially dictate whether the 2017 UK football season is viewed as a success or not.
Yet with Sunday’s announcement that junior-college standout Terry Wilson had spurned recruiting pitches from Florida and Nebraska to pick UK, it is not too early to look ahead to the competition to replace the graduating Johnson as Kentucky’s starting QB for 2018.
The number two junior-college quarterback in the country according to recruiting service 247sports.com, Wilson says he will enroll at UK for the second semester and go through spring practice.
Never miss a local story.
Let’s take a look at what should be a fascinating battle to become the new UK QB:
A former Conner High School star, Barker presumably enters spring practice as the favorite.
A four-star recruit from Mark Stoops’ ballyhooed 2014 signing class, Barker was named Kentucky’s starter after spring practice in 2016 only to give up the job due to a season-ending back injury after three games.
Now, because of back surgery and Johnson’s emergence, Barker will enter his redshirt senior season having barely played.
The 6-foot-3, 222-pound QB has made five career starts. At UK, Barker is a career 50 percent passer (55-of-110) and has thrown more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (five).
Against Southern Mississippi in the 2016 season opener, Barker played one of the best halves by a Kentucky QB in memory, throwing for 287 yards and four TDs before halftime.
Conversely, in the 2015 season finale against Louisville, Barker played one of the least effective halves of recent times by a UK QB, going 1-of-14 passing for minus-1 yard after halftime.
Is Barker the player he was before his back problems? How good a player was that, anyway? We don’t know because Barker will enter his sixth Kentucky spring practice (he started college a semester early) having not played enough to fully evaluate him.
An Oklahoma native, Wilson signed with Oregon out of high school as a dual-threat QB. He redshirted in 2016, then transferred to Garden City Community College in Kansas after sophomore Justin Herbert won the Ducks’ starting quarterback job.
As a redshirt freshman this season at Garden City, the 6-3, 203-pound Wilson threw for 2,113 yards and 26 TDs. But he also threw 11 picks while completing a so-so 57.6 percent of his passes.
Part of Wilson’s appeal is his ability to make plays with his legs (518 yards and five TDs rushing this year).
So if Wilson wins the Kentucky QB job, he would seem to give UK co-offensive coordinators Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw a chance to build on the run-pass options they have used effectively with Johnson the past two years.
A high-profile, junior-college transfer QB does not pick a school unless he expects to win the starting job.
In two appearances in the Kentucky spring game, Hoak has left UK fans wanting more. The 6-4, 206 pound product of Dublin, Ohio, has completed 20 of 29 passes for 231 yards and three touchdowns combined in two Blue-White Games.
Yet Hoak has yet to throw a pass in an actual UK game.
Because Wilson will come to Kentucky as a sophomore in eligibility, his arrival complicates the future for Hoak, who will be in the same class as the juco transfer.
Clark is a one-time Ohio State commit from Columbus. The 6-2, 230-pounder is reputed to boast a strong arm albeit with accuracy questions (54.9 completion percentage as a high school senior).
At 6-foot, 181 pounds, Wood was a scrambling gunslinger of a QB at Lafayette High School. In recent years, Wood has battled injuries.
Both Clark and Wood will enter the spring with the uphill climb of competing with three older QBs.
My way-too-early guess at how things play out? Barker starts Kentucky’s 2018 season opener against Central Michigan, but Wilson is starting by the regular-season finale at Louisville.